our earth, our life

How green is your city?

Across the length and breadth of India there’s a clandestine rebellion going on ~ the weapons of choice being shovels and brooms. Soma Basu elaborates

WITH Guerilla Gardeners secretly pruning shrubs in neighbours’ lawns and Ugly Indians spot-fixing cities, a statement is being made clear and loud that people are fed up with dirt, crumbling buildings and unplanned habitats. The rebellion is very much on, the weapons of choice being shovels and brooms.
Ugly Indians, a civic group in Bangalore, has made it a mission to “spot-fix” the city by choosing small stretches each week to clean. Comprised of mostly professionals in the 25-40 age group who remain strictly anonymous, it has so far fixed 104 spots ~ two per week ~ mostly around Bangalore’s central business district, including MG Road, Brigade Road and Church Street.
The Ugly Indian page on Facebook has short videos that capture the clean-up in specific stretches — starting with people avoiding the area and then showing the Ugly Indians starting their job, transforming footpaths and walls with the use of bright paint and motifs and, finally, people coming back.
Several like-minded people, fed up with the wastage of public space, have come up with a solution called Guerilla Gardening. A Guerilla Gardener in Mumbai recounted how he noticed a patch of land by the road. All that was needed was getting rid of wild grass and shrubs and a bit of tree pruning. But neither the civic authorities nor the residents’ association were interested in turning it into a usable park, which could be done with minimum effort and expense. So, he took on the job. Like him, groups of individuals elsewhere across the world quietly enter places and spruce them up. The idea is not to “take over” or establish ownership but to transform the place. This does amount to “guerrilla” activity because it’s illicit, so ideally it’s done when others are asleep or not looking.
Guerrilla gardening websites ( offer tips on how to go about it: step one, spot an abandoned patch; step two, “plan a mission” and “invite supportive friends or perhaps enroll supportive strangers”. Take along some perennial plants that do not require looking after.
Spot-fixers and Guerilla Gardeners apart, several city planners and architects are coming forward with innovative projects and designs for better transport mobility, greener cities and habitats that are not destructive to species down the food chain. The government and research institutes have also been taking a keen interest in the issue.
The National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, approved by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is one of eight missions under the National Action Plan for Climate Change that aims to make cities sustainable through improving energy efficiency in buildings, managing solid waste and shifting to public transport. It covers the following aspects: extension of the energy conservation building code — which addresses the design of new and large commercial buildings to optimise their energy demands; better urban planning and modal shift to public transport — making long-term transport plans to facilitate the growth of medium and small cities in a way that ensures efficient and convenient public transport; and recycling of material and urban waste management — a special area of focus will be the development of technology for producing power from waste. The mission will include a major R&D programme that focuses on bio-chemical conversion, wastewater use, sewage utilisation and recycling options, wherever possible.
Close on its heels, Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (National Rating System of India) has been conceived by The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi and developed jointly with the Union ministry of new and renewable energy. It is a green building “design evaluation system” and is suitable for all kinds of construction in different climatic zones of the country.
The Sustainable Cities Programme of UN-Habitat provides technical and financial support to the All India Institute of Local Self-Government to implement the Environmental Planning and Management process in solid waste management in selected cities in Maharashtra.
The CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Centre in Hyderabad is a zero-discharge edifice and a fourth of its power demands is met through solar energy. The building consumes 40 per cent less water and uses 50 per cent less electricity than a conventional structure. Built with fly-ash bricks and spread over two hectares, the GBC has rainwater harvesting channels, a reed bed-based sewage treatment utility, an electric car-charging station, a roof covered with gardens to insulate it from the heat and 25 kW capacity solar panels.
The flip side to these achievements is that the GBC, with a built-up area of 20,000 square feet, was constructed at a cost of Rs 10 crore in 2003. This, according to GBC senior counsellor S Srinivas, is around 18 times the cost of a conventional building of similar dimensions. “We had to import high performance double-glazed glass, carpets, toilet cleaners (which it still imports) and gadgets like Building Management System to meet US Green Building Council standards for platinum rating,” he explains. Several Indian architects have cited the problem in case of green buildings.
However, a lesson or two could be learnt from Tipu Sultan Merkez, a privately initiated school and development project in Jar Maulwi, a small village near Lahore, Pakistan. The school requires seven additional classrooms to accommodate its growing student population. So, Eike Roswag, an architect with Ziegert Roswag Seiler Architekten Ingenieure in Berlin, Germany, took up designing locally manufactured cob and bamboo for the school building. The project won the Gold Award Asia Pacific at the Holcim Foundation Contest for Sustainable Construction.
Roswag designed the new classrooms which are larger than the existing ones. The new structure is of two levels and serves to minimise land use and demonstrate the potential that earth and bamboo have as building materials for load-bearing structures. Glassed windows to the south collect solar energy to regulate building temperatures in the winter. In the summer, the earth naturally absorbs humidity from night-time cross-ventilation and then releases it into the air during the day. This process cools the interior to around eight degrees Celsius, below outside peak temperatures, and provides a comfortable indoor environment.
Among other modifications, an underground brick foundation and a horizontal damp-proof course protect the earthen walls against rising damp and splashing rainwater. As deforestation is an important issue in the region, the simple construction method is expected to incorporate bamboo to reduce wood consumption. The main idea was to promote local traditions, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and expensive products from outside the region and develop natural material and economic cycles. The school is a pilot project for a transformed building method, one that can be adapted for different uses. A private two-level house has also been designed and will be built as a parallel pilot project on the university campus in Lahore.
In India, the Mahalir Aran Trust, a local NGO, commissioned Flying Elephant Studio for the design of a primary healthcare centre on agricultural land at Devara Outhu Pallam in rural Tamil Nadu. Rajesh Renganathan, an architect with Flying Elephant Studio in Bangalore, designed a primary healthcare centre near Dharmapuri, that would not only improve access to critical healthcare at the local village level but also reduce expenditure currently incurred in urban hospitals.
The strong climatic response of the design minimises energy consumption for cooling, along with the conservation of rainwater by employing the best water management practices for landscape development. The project won an acknowledgement prize at a contest.
In the mid-1970s, work began on laying a single shunting railway line that would circumscribe the extent of New Delhi at that time. Originally called the Delhi Avoiding Line, it was meant to decongest the existing city stations of interstate goods traffic to better facilitate the throughput of passenger trains at these stations. Later, in 1982, a parallel passenger rail service was initiated to improve the connection of new residential colonies, commercial and industrial areas to the stations as well as to each other.
Subsequently, the manner and extent to which the city has grown, the non-integrated development of other transit systems networks and numerous systemic issues have left this urban transport system grossly underutilised.
A project has been designed in New Delhi to reclaim the Ring Rail corridor as urban space that will add value to the character of the city while providing a human-powered, inter-modal transit system that increases connectivity. The project has been envisaged in the urban context in addition to its functional role as a segregated shunting line. It imagines the Ring beyond the Rail and puts forth the idea of creating a contiguous belt that is human-powered, a precinct that is pedestrian, cycle-friendly and abuzz with urban activity that is rapidly losing legitimate place in an increasingly car-centric city.
The project also seeks to legitimise the informal sector, recognising its valuable contribution to the city’s economy and culture. It encourages the creation of cooperatives in the unorganised sector which would enable access to social and welfare infrastructure like health, education and micro-finance. Further, the rail corridor proves to be an excellent site for establishing an “information cloud” accessed through basic and most ubiquitous mobile technology (1G) that has witnessed deep penetration into the city population (across income groups). The cloud empowers peer-to-peer recommendation, the age-old system that drives the informal sector, with cheap new age technology through which people can rate, tag and exchange information. All stakeholders reap the benefits.
The project enhances people’s engagement with the physical environs of the city and the technological model developed, together with the reclamation of urban space, has universal application. The project was exhibited at the Urban Mobility India Conference, 2009, at the Urban Habitat Summit garnered critical acclaim. It was self-initiated but now the National Association of Street Vendors of India fully supports the project and feasibility studies are currently being conducted with different land-owning agencies and stakeholder communities.
Building and Civil Engineering Works won the “Next Generation” third prize, Asia Pacific, at the Holcim Foundation Contest for Sustainable Construction for designing a decentralised sanitation system near New Delhi. Several economical projects that promote a green habitat are available. What remains the keyword is implementation.

Soma Basu

The Statesman reporter wins award

KOLKATA, 1 DEC: A reporter with The Statesman in Kolkata, Soma Basu, has bagged the CMS-PANOS Young Environment Journalist Award 2011 in the Print Media category. The award will be presented to her at the inaugural ceremony of the CMS VATAVARAN environment and wildlife film festival on 6 December in New Delhi. The CMS awards are presented for excellence in environmental journalism to individuals who have done “exemplary investigative and inspired reporting on environmental issues in the country”. This countrywide recognition for young journalists who have made a significant contribution in either the print or electronic media to an understanding of the nation’s environmental problems is a prized award. Manu C Kumar, Manorama News, Mumbai bagged the award in the electronic media category. sns

Voice against BRAI Bill gets stronger

KOLKATA, 23 NOV: As many as 10 former Supreme Court judges, several members of Parliament, over 200 organisations and one lakh citizens have asked the Prime Minister, Mr Manmohan Singh, to scrap the proposed Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill in its present form that is set to be introduced in Parliament this Winter session.
The former SC judges are Mr Justice MH Kania, former Chief Justice of India, Justice Sujata Manohar (who was also a former Member of the National Human Rights Commission), Justice MB Shah (who was also a former President of the National Consumer Redressal Forum), Justice Kuldip Singh, Justice Jeevan Reddy, Justice MK Mukherjee, Justice Ruma Pal, Justice Variava, Justice Srikrishna and Justice Santosh Hegde. The former judges were given a draft Bill by Ms Kavitha Karugunti, convener of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a national coalition of organic farmers and organic farming enthusiasts, and it was discussed. The former judges then endorsed a common statement of concern on their individual letterheads for sending it to the Prime Minister. Their letter along with petitions from various organisations and citizens were sent to Mr Singh.
They have called for a restructuring of the proposed Bill to ensure that every citizen can effectively know and refuse to eat GM food, every farmer can be ensured access to non-GM seed, every state government and gram sabha should have the right to effectively stay GM free. They have also called for independent testing and deterrent penalties for any deliberate or inadvertent GM contamination of food or seed and transgression of rights of citizens.
International agreements like the Cartagena Protocol, to which India is a signatory, prescribe that GM should not be allowed for crops in their Centres of Origin/Centres of Diversity. “Since India is the centre of origin or diversity for most of the proposed food crops, genetic modification in such crops would be detrimental for India’s biological wealth and national interests, and against the Cartagena Protocol, and must be prohibited in such crops,” the letter reads. It may be noted that, Dr MS Swaminathan, known as father of India’s Green Revolution, has said that the proposed BRAI Bill is against the spirit of decentralised governance. The BRAI Bill is a proposed regulatory mechanism that will create a single window clearance system for genetically modified (GM) organisms. It will essentially be a few scientists in the department of biotechnology, the same department that is mandated to promote biotechnology, who will have the power to clear GM proposals. Reports by leading institutions and independent scientists have postulated that “genetic modification is an imprecise and highly risky technology”.

Soma Basu

‘Be a vegetarian to fight global warming’

KOLKATA, 14 NOV: Global warming is caused by methane and not carbon-di-oxide, said Mrs Maneka Gandhi, wildlife activist and BJP MP, today during the launch of the Rotary Club of Calcutta Mayfair’s initiative ~ Save our Sparrows (SOS) ~ at the Calcutta International School today. “We are trapped in a rubbish debate over carbon-di-oxide causing global warming and climate change as it suits us and the West. People will not stop using cars or electricity. And it will allow us to say that we did not have energy or the west has released more carbon-di-oxide etc,” Mrs Gandhi said.
After so many green marathon, green caps, green banners, and all the conferences worldwide, the year 2010 remained the warmest and carbon-di-oxide levels remained the same, she added.
Methane has a global warming potential value (GWP) of 25 (in 100 years timeframe estimate) comparatively to carbon di-oxide, which has the value of 1. Mrs Gandhi said that if people stop eating meat, a major cause of the greenhouse gas, methane would go away in four years.
“To stop eating meat is Nationalistic and pro-planet. It had nothing to do with cruelty and nationalism. If you want to save the world, stop eating meat,” she emphasised adding most of the Nobel Prize winners like Mr Al Gore and Mr RK Pachauri have advocated vegetarianism to lessen global warming.
Mrs Gandhi told the students of the school to take initiatives and involve others in environment-friendly projects. She also said: “Let us not get into the cell phone tower debate over disappearance of sparrows as it disempowers us. People need cell phones and towers are a very small part of the problem,” she added.
Save our Sparrow initiative aims to provide sparrows in Kolkata with food so that they have an incentive to procreate and increase their population.
The club has launched functional sparrow feeders that can provide more than 2,000 bird meals a year. The aim is to provide food for 25,000 sparrows in Kolkata in the first year. Each feeders costs Rs 100.

Soma Basu

No more do sparrows break our sweet slumber

KOLKATA, 13 NOV: Old spacious buildings being replaced with match-box flats and indiscriminate use of pesticides have pushed sparrows, that were once seen in abundance, to the bracket of “critically endangered” in the span of just one decade, says ornithologists.
The impact of climate change on birds is yet to be studied in India and researchers fear that climate change will re-arrange distribution of birds and disrupt the migration patterns countrywide.
Three years ago, Common Birds Monitoring Programme was started in different areas of the country, but had to be grounded due to lack of funds and policy guidelines. In recent years, ornithologists have observed sharp decline in house sparrow population across the metropolitan cities. In a state like West Bengal, rough figures indicate that sparrow population has gone down by as much as 80 per cent.
A research paper by Mr Anjan Dandapat, Mr Dipak Banerjee and Mr Dibyendu Chakraborty of National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, states that sparrows now feeds on seeds and chemically treated grain available which works as slow poison for the bird. On an average each sparrow will eat a staggering figure of 1,000 caterpillars per year which is better than a chemical pesticide with harmful side effects, the report states.
Mono-culture (single variety) grasses that have become a fad and that are grown for beautification have also had an impact by destroying various native varieties of grass and depleting other flora and fauna that the birds depend upon, the report further added.
Due to unsustainable urban housing, sparrows have lost their habitat. Sparrows used to build their nests below tiled roofs. With contemporary architecture making a clean sweep in cities, tiled roofs have became a thing of the past, and sparrows lost prospective nesting spots.
“Decline of birds has direct impact on the spread of mosquito-borne diseases. This is what bio-diversity means. If one of the species is extinct, it will affect the whole food chain and even humans would be adversely affected,” said Ms Antara Ghosh, a nature enthusiast. Decline of sparrows has been linked with the rise of West Nile Virus infection.
However, not all are blind to the disappearance of sparrows. In Mumbai, to fight this decline, Mohammed Dilawar, one of the winners of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment-2008, started the Box Initiative by putting up little wooden boxes on trees, which sparrows could use as nests. Mohd Dilawar also kept feeders with grains, insects and water to help the sparrows settle.
To commemorate the 115th birth anniversary of celebrated ornithologist, Salim Ali, Rotary Club of Calcutta Mayfair has planned to launch an initiative aimed at saving sparrows in Kolkata.
Through the Save our Sparrow (SOS) initiative, the club aims to provide sparrows in Kolkata with food so that they have an incentive to procreate and increase their population. The initiative is to provide food for 25,000 sparrows in Kolkata in the first year.
To mark the launch of the Kolkata initiative, a sparrow feeder (bottles with grain) was presented to Mayor Mr Sovan Chatterjee yesterday. The initiative will be launched in schools, starting with Calcutta International School, by Mrs Maneka Gandhi, BJP MP and wildlife activist, tomorrow.
With sparrow feeders people can feed more than 2,000 birds for a year.

Soma Basu

WBPCB clean chit to polluting factory

KOLKATA, 10 NOV: Even when the health of thousands of residents of a thickly populated area ~ Lake Town ~ is deteriorating and birds are dropping dead from trees due to emission from a hazardous chemical unit, the factory has repeatedly managed to get a clean chit from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB).
Inaction of the board against the red category industry ~ West Bengal Chemical Industries Limited at 145/1 Jessore Road ~ is making people question the role of the inspection officials.
Dr Sudip Saha and Dr BK Mondal, residents of the area, said that number of patients complaining of nausea, gastric problem and irritation in the respiratory tract has increased manifold. A sweeper in the locality, Mr Ali, said that over the last two-three months, a large number of birds have died. He said that every morning he spots as many as 30-40 dead birds. “I have never seen such a phenomena anywhere else I have worked,” he added. The residents of the buildings located near the unit are fed up with the obnoxious smell emanating from it. In fact, they had started an agitation against the factory five years ago.
The WBPCB sent a team to inspect the factory after months of repeated requests by the aggrieved residents of the area. In 2009, a public hearing was held at the board in which a set of recommendations was issued. Needless to mention, the unit did not follow any of them and continued operation and discharging untreated waste into open drains that is connected to Bagjola canal.
In November 2010, The Statesman published two reports following which the WBPCB served a closure notice on the unit. The closure order was suspended on 20 December 2010 on condition that the unit will have to follow another series of guidelines. On 20 January 2011, the WBPCB issued a directive stating that the unit can operate for another three months as a team of officials, during inspection, found the unit complying with the norms. Till today, the unit continues to operate and the obnoxious smell that has been driving people out of their homes persists.
The industry produces chemicals like Sodium Butyrate, Calcium Acetate, Calcium Ascorbate and Calcium Aspartate. According to a reference document commissioned by European Commission, liquid waste from such a unit causes acute toxicity to fishes. Santa Cruz Biotechnology in California, USA, states that Sodium Butyrate can cause eye irritation and damage, can cause respiratory irritation and lung damage. The state environment minister, Mr Sudarshan Ghosh Dastidar, said he will instruct the WBPCB chairman, Mr Binoy Dutta, to take immediate action. Mr Dutta said that another inspection team had visited the unit last week and he will seek the report from the officials tomorrow. The general manager of the company could not be contacted.

Soma Basu

Scientists decode arhar genome

KOLKATA, 3 NOV: A team of scientists (not economists) has found what might be a solution to the rising prices of pulses in the country.
Thirty-one scientists from various agricultural institutes have found the genome of arhar, the second most important pulse crop of India.
The decoding of arhar genome has unfolded its complete genetic information content which will help faster development of high-yielding, disease-resistant and insect-resistant varieties of arhar for higher productivity in the farmer’s field and lower the prices of pulses in the market for the people, said Dr Swapan Kumar Dutta, deputy director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute (ICAR), New Delhi in Kolkata today on the sidelines of a seminar.
The availability of the arhar genome sequence will accelerate development of new varieties and hybrids with enhanced productivity by making use of germplasm resources, in a way similar to the rice genome experience.
The average pulse crop productivity in India has remained low at about 650 kg per hectare for the past six decades leading to soaring dal prices with increasing demands. Lack of high-yielding, disease and pest-resistant varieties is a major factor for stagnant pulse productivity, Dr Dutta added.
Slow progress in breeding high-yielding arhar varieties was attributed to a dearth of genetic information, he said.
The scientists have identified 47,004 protein-coding genes in the arhar genome, of which 1,213 genes are for disease resistance and 152 genes for tolerance to drought, heat and salinity that make it a hardy crop, especially in the wake of climate change and skewed weather pattern.
At present India is importing about 3 million tons of pulses at a cost of about Rs 7,000 crore every year. The large demand-supply gap has led to soaring prices of dal and food inflation.
About 85 per cent of the world’s pigeon pea is produced and consumed in India where it is a key crop for food and nutritional security of the people. India imports pigeon pea from Myanmar which is the second largest producer.
The total cost of generating the first draft of arhar genome sequence has been about Rs 11 crore over the past six years. Institutes involved in the research were National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB), New Delhi; Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi; Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR), Kanpur; Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi; Panjabrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola, Maharashtra and University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, Karnataka.

Soma Basu


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