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Tackling India's environment problems from the ground up

Grassroots initiatives aim to help rural poor go green reporter, Patna reporter, Patna

Updated: February 05, 2014 10:49 PM GMT
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Tackling India's environment problems from the ground up

Visitors to Tarumitra, a bio-reserve in Bihar's state capital of Patna, gather ingredients for a midday meal

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Seema Kumari plucks branches from a curry tree and adds them to stalks of daisy and leaves from drumstick and mango trees already in her small basket.

She and her companions will use a blender to process them with chopped onions, chilies and lemon juice to create a savory chutney for lunch.

“I have never seen so many different trees in one place,” she says, during a visit to Tarumitra, a bio-reserve comprising four hectares in the Bihar state capital of Patna.

Tarumitra, which means “Friends of Trees” is an oasis of sorts, founded in 1988 by a group of students under the guidance of a Jesuit priest and theology professor in response to growing social and environmental hardships in one of India’s poorest states.

Bihar has a high population density and a literacy rate of only 63.82 – the lowest in India.

Fr Robert Athickal SJ helped the students cultivate Tarumitra by planting 450 varieties of trees, some of them quite rare in the country.

The aim of the project, which also included the building of “green” homes from environmentally safe materials, was to help curb environmental pollution in Bihar and create a place where others could come to learn about alternative methods of agricultural cultivation.

“When we began our work, the environment was not a matter of concern in India. We were considered nerds,” Fr Athickal said.

At Tarumitra, residents and visitors alike help tend organic crops and learn about alternative energy sources, endangered wildlife and farming techniques in a way intended to teach that making a difference to the environment is sometimes simply a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty.

Environmental degradation is a pressing issue for India. In a recent study of the impact of environmental contamination on human health, jointly administered by Yale and Columbia universities in the United States, India ranked 126th out of 132 countries surveyed.

It came last of all countries in adverse effects of air pollution on the population, with the report stating that India has the worst air pollution of any country in the world.

According to another study by the World Heath Organization that surveyed G20 economies, India accounted for 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

In Bihar, as in other poor rural areas of India, poverty is a cause and consequence of environmental degradation, according to the World Bank.

Agricultural yields are lower on degraded land, while forests and grasslands are depleted as livelihood resources decline. 

With few alternatives at hand, the poor are compelled to overuse what little resources are available to them, creating a downward spiral of impoverishment and environmental degradation – accounting for a net loss of US$80 billion per year, or 5.7 percent of India’s national economy.

Since the late 1980s, India’s top court has laid down new guidelines and infrastructure for environmental protection and a reinterpretation of existing laws.

Implementation has proven difficult. Financial incentives for the construction of solar powered water pumps in rural areas, for example, have been plagued by allegations of corruption.

But another Jesuit, Fr Paul Mariadass, has pressed on with his own initiative in Patna. Along with five employees, the priest runs a small craft shop where he builds and sells solar energy systems.

Huge parabolic mirrors cover the grounds around his shop, giving it a futuristic look. The mirrors, constructed according to a patent by a German engineer, concentrate sunlight to heat water and provide energy. 

Fr Mariadass’s shop is one of only four where such devices are manufactured in India from mechanical parts easily obtained and easy to repair.

The devices have proven popular among schools and hospitals as a source of cheap energy for kitchens and sterilization machines.

“Solar energy is not free,” says Mariadass. “Clients need to invest and maintain their equipment. But apart from serving the environment, solar energy makes people independent from public systems and saves a lot of money in the long term.”

Private initiatives on solar energy are in line with the national agenda for increasing energy independence.

With the launch of the National Action Plan for Climate Change in 2010, the Indian government sought to expand solar capacity from its current level of 2,180 megawatts to 20,000 megawatts.

But for the small band of environmentalists at Tarumitra, tackling energy independence and adopting a saner approach to protecting the environment is a matter of dedication, patience and overcoming low expectations of what ordinary people can accomplish when they put their minds and hands to it.

“Today people are aware of the problems. They have to suffer from pollution in their everyday lives, but there is a great apathy that is borne out of helplessness. People think they can’t change things,” said Fr Athickal.

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