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Meet the real green card holders

For some people, every day is Earth Day. They don’t just talk about it. They actually live by their beliefs. In the world of carbon footprints, meet five families whose shoes are size ‘small’. Abhijit Patnaik writes.

india Updated: Sep 10, 2011 19:50 IST
Abhijit Patnaik
Abhijit Patnaik
Hindustan Times

Kermit the Frog, it seems, wasn’t entirely right when he sang "It’s not that easy being green". Talk to any of these five families from around the country and you will know why. From a consultant in Delhi trying to live "off the grid", to vegetarian artists in Bangalore with an electricity bill of R300 per month, to a garbage-loving retired rubber technologist in south Mumbai, families from all walks of life across the country are making all sorts of changes to their homes and their lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprint.

Often, they’re unfairly dismissed as health- and eco-minded hippies. Depending on your idea of environmental friendliness, you could see them that way too. But these people have a certain vision of life and they do their best to live by that vision. Read on to see how and why these families reuse-reduce-recycle, and why you don’t necessarily have to waste the green in your wallet to be ‘green’.

A man of the elements

Sanjay Bhalla, an engineer in Delhi with a passion for solar energy – think street lights and heaters – makes a business out of it


From the rooftop of his home in Nizamuddin, you can see the dome of Humayun’s tomb. The same rooftop where Sanjay Bhalla, a self-proclaimed solar enthusiast, has installed a water heater and an exterior lamp which run on nothing but the boundless energy provided by the sun.

Sanjay BhallaBhalla, who looks much younger than his 51 years, is an active speed-cyclist and occasional golfer. Solar energy is both his passion and his profession. He runs Silverspark, a company which provides energy solutions in the form of street lights and water heaters that run on solar power. After installing the solar heater at home, he has almost never switched on the old electric water heaters. Even on a cloudy day, the water is hot at 60 degrees and ready for use.

Bhalla’s travels through rural India influenced him to use the power of the sun to get electricity to villages. "In the Muzaffar Nagar-Saharanpur belt in UP, I once saw a big 1.7 lakh litre tank to supply water to a village – but no electricity to fill it. A solar pump would have done the trick. After all, why should there be a mineral water bottle seller in a village with plenty of water? Use solar!" he says. Even street lighting – especially in far flung areas – can be done cost effectively using solar lights, thus eliminating the need to set up grids there, according to him. "The return on investment is huge in rural India."

His house also boasts an elaborate rainwater harvesting facility, set up in 2002. "This is my baby," he says, pointing to a large pit in his garden where rain water collects and percolates into the ground. Since he has installed this system, the water that would earlier flood the street and go down the drain now recharges the water table. "The quality of groundwater has improved," he says, proudly. "You have to, however, make sure the pit doesn’t get clogged. My heart bleeds when I see the rainwater harvesting pits in Delhi’s famous Lodi Garden – they are totally choked and don’t serve any purpose."

Bhalla considers himself nearly alone when talking about green solutions to everyday problems. "I would give my acquaintances a half out of ten in environmental awareness. It used to be zero, but some are waking up to solar water heating. When we talk about these solutions, most of my friends laugh, saying, nahi chalta."

He feels that solar appliances have earned a bad name because in trying to make them cheap, quality has been compromised, making them unreliable. Pointing to his exterior solar light, he says, "Is it expensive? Yes. But it’s a quality product, it provides me security at night, and I don’t have to worry about it for at least five years."

He continues to dream, and dream big. He is setting up a model home in Noida which does not use electricity from the grid, yet is complete with modern amenities – to demonstrate that solar appliances are the way of the future.

What does his family think of his ventures? "They laugh and say that I should be thinking of retiring, not thinking of solar power," he says.

What you can do
1. Use LED lights at home
2. Prevention is better than cure: Make sure your rainwater harvesting pit does not get choked due to silt.

Living by their principles

MB Nirmal & Vijayalakshmi Nirmal, eco ‘fundamentalist’ and doctor respectively, aim to turn concrete jungles into green jungles


MB Nirmal, often referred to either as a crackpot or a genius depending on your point of view, has a dream. Together with his doctor wife Vijayalakshmi, he wants to create a green jungle within the concrete jungle of Chennai.

It seems he’s succeeding. In their two-bedroom flat in Majestic Towers opposite the inter-city bus stand in Chennai, the couple lives with almost 200 hundred plants. But that’s not the only eco-friendly concept 67-year-old Nirmal lives with. Once a banker and now an avowed environmental ‘fundamentalist’ running an eco-concern called Exnora, he convinced Vijayalakshmi, now 63, to use only public transport to commute every day to and from the hospital where she works. She doesn’t mind: the two of them have been environmentally responsible for as long as they can remember.

MB-Nirmal-&-Vijayalakshmi-NIt isn’t easy. Earlier this year, the kitchen garden the couple convinced residents of their building to involve themselves in was hit by a pest attack. The problem was compounded by heavy rain – plants just died. But Nirmal is undeterred. "We all get our vegetables from this garden," he says. "But I don’t want to take even a tomato from here. The produce will go into a common pool and then be distributed. This will be managed by the youth brigade of our residential complex."

It’s not uncommon to see Nirmal talking to the plants after his customary morning walk. After that, he takes the staircase to his 12th floor flat. City farming, indoor farming, street farming, gutter farming, terrace farming – farming anywhere and everywhere – is important, he explains, because there will be a global food shortage by 2020.

Green living is not expensive at all, and the benefits far outweigh the initial expenses for, say, LED bulbs and energy efficient gadgets, says Nirmal, as he launches into a tirade on his passion – the conservation of resources. "I have to showcase this lifestyle to motivate other people," he explains.

So in their home, not a single food grain is wasted; drinking water is served to guests in a bottle accompanied by a tumbler (so that they take only as much as they want); and purchases are made only after the couple assess whether they absolutely need it.

"We have almost every gadget people use, but we switch them off when they’re not in use," says Nirmal. So the electricity bill for their 2,100 sq ft flat works out to R2,300 for two months. "We use the AC very rarely, only for guests who may want it," says Nirmal. "The stress is on natural light and air, so we often don’t even use a fan."

Though Nirmal is often out, running Exnora, doing development work with the help of civic bodies and motivating young people in conservation activities, he never forgets his dream. "Come back after five months," he says. "The entrance to my flat will be like a jungle!"

— KV Lakshmana

What you can do
1. Water plants with used water collected from your wash basins and kitchen sink
2. Treat toilet water with bacteria and use it to water plants
3. Also collect the water used to wash rice and vegetables and use it to water plants
4. Do not imagine that soapy water, collected after a bath, can’t be used. It can also be used for plants as it is rich in potassium
5. If you live in a small apartment, use surface space sparingly for plants. Rather, use walls and other vertical space to grow plants
6. Spray neem paste to drive away mosquitoes rather than use pesticides with chemical compounds
7. Avoid owning a dining table. Instead, serve food from a trolley. That way you serve only as much as is needed. Make it a point not to waste food
8. For your plants, do not buy flower pots. Only use containers of different hues, including bamboo shoots, which make for very good vertical plant holders

An artist’s paradise

Sanjay & Pratibha Singh, a couple that shows how using sunlight makes their home ideal in all weathers – and makes it ‘breathe’

The sense you get when you hear artist Pratibha Singh, 46, talk about the various features of her ‘green’ home, is that it is living, breathing, almost human.

Sanjay-&-Pratibha-SinghWhen she and her husband, fellow-artist Sanjay Singh, moved into their home in Singapura, about 13 km from Bangalore, it was to get away from the city. But the past eight years have been more than that. Their idea of simple living has matured in this, their home.

Enter the compound and you are greeted by a virtual green cave – a Pongamia tree-covered driveway. On the right is a large garden. The house itself is very open – there are doors only where essential. The stabilised-mud-bricks (a mix of cement, mud and quarry-dust) used to build their house are not burnt, but ‘breathing’. These, along with the flooring, which uses a similar mix, ensure the house is cool in summer and warm in winter.

The ‘grey’ water of the kitchen is recycled using a natural filter – a system of gravel, sand and other sediments which doesn’t use electricity – and then used to water the garden. "The rain water harvesting facility also waters the garden for five months a year," Singh says.

With plenty of green around the house, and sunlight streaming in through the eight foot-tall windows and majestic skylight, the house has just one fan. "We use it only a few days a year," says Singh.

Pratibha and Sanjay, both art-graduates from Shantiniketan in West Bengal, always were environmentally friendly, but friendship with another Bangalore resident, who runs the rainwater harvesting club, took things to the next level. Inevitably, there were skeptics amongst family and friends – questions were raised on the feasibility of environmentally friendly homes. Singh, however, wonders why. "In the long run, such a house is cost effective – and it wasn’t more expensive during construction either," she says. "For example, we don’t have to deal with cracks or need to re-do our walls with toxic paints since they are natural – and look as good as new."

All their habits – from small ones like switching off the lights when leaving a room to adding organic waste to the compost pit have been inculcated in their seven-year-old son Utkarsh.

All this translates into the story’s jaw-dropping statistic – their monthly electricity bill is only Rs 300!

And living with so much light has post-sunset advantages as well. "In the city, the moon is hidden. Here, the beautiful winter moonlight streams in through the skylight," says Singh.

What you can do
1. Grow organic food, especially local vegetables that are suited to the climate. In Bangalore that means fruit and vegetables like pui-saag, coriander, passion fruit, pumpkin and spinach
2. Do not build on the entire plot – leave plenty of garden space around your home
3. Don’t over-consume. Sometimes people buy things in bulk because it’s cheap – even if they don't need it. Don’t do any surplus buying

In the company of trees
Anil Bhatia makes the immediate environment around him green and healthy through vermiculture and bio-composting. The soil in his garden is crawling with worms but that just means one thing: it’s rich!

Anil Bhatia’s house is one of many apartments on D Road in Churchgate, Mumbai. The lane is well-known not only because it is located directly opposite Wankhede Stadium, but also because it has been labelled a ‘model road’ by Mumbai’s municipal corporation because of its cleanliness and greenery. However, what sets this lane apart from others is the 18 years of effort of the residents and the initiative of one resident – Anil Bhatia – to make it that way.

Anil BhatiaA retired rubber technologist, Bhatia, 63, lives with his wife, daughters and grandson. The family started their eco-warrior journey by separating dry and wet garbage, which he says is a basic practice for an eco-friendly lifestyle. The wet waste comprising vegetable peels, fruit seeds and raw fruits and vegetables is used for bio-composting. Now every home in Bhatia’s building makes its contribution to the wet waste, which is used in the building’s garden.

"The idea is not just to plant saplings but to take care of trees," explains Bhatia. "Houses near healthy trees are automatically pest-free." The soil of the plant or the tree needs worms to till it. This is vermiculture, wherein worms consume the waste and their excretion leads to nitrate fixation in the soil. If you visit his building’s garden, Bhatia will make you examine the soil and see the worms in it, indicating that the soil is rich in manure and nutrients.

The garden extends along the length of the entire lane. There are banyan trees, asoka trees, neem trees, papaya trees, mango trees, deodar trees and the list goes on. Three gardeners maintain it on a daily basis. "We have gardeners because the lane is long," says Bhatia. "But you don’t need people if you’re doing this for your own house. Just take care to separate your waste and use the wet waste to make your own soil."

What’s striking is Bhatia’s treatment of garbage. His family does not treat garbage like it’s dirty. "There’s nothing dirty about vegetable peels and their seeds," says Bhatia. Their dustbin is a steel utensil, which is cleaned on a daily basis. It does not stink at all. "That’s because the stink starts when you mix dry waste with wet waste. Items such as paper and plastic need to be discarded separately."

The building also uses bio-sanitised water. Bhatia, who interacts regularly with Dr Uday Bhawalkar, the director of Bhawalkar Ecological Research Institute in Pune, uses certain root enzymes given by Bhawalkar to ‘cleanse’ the water in his building. Three to four of these root enzymes, which are the size of green peas, can be used to balance the nutrient content of water in a way to make it fit even for drinking.

"Enzymes in trees’ roots help to make even dirty or saline water absorbed by the roots useful," explains Bhatia. "Placing those enzymes in our water tank ‘cleans’ the water." So much so that the gutter area of the building, where the waste water pipes are, doesn’t stink at all.

The effect of this bio-sanitisation has shown results in the health of the building’s domestic staff. Some of their children were perpetually ill but after consuming the bio-sanitised water, they’ve been much healthier. Moreover, because of this combination of healthy trees and bio-sanitised water, the Bhatias do not use phenyl or any other disinfectant to mop the floors of their pest-free house.

— Sharanya Misra Sharma

What you can do
1. Segregate waste. Collect wet garbage and dry garbage separately
2. Mix your wet garbage with the soil of your plants and trees. You will not need to add fertilisers if you do this
3. Make your own soil. Use dry leaves, cow urine and waste along with wet garbage to create a compost pit. In about three months, it’ll turn into soil
4. Try to avoid creating cooked waste. Never throw away cooked food, use leftovers creatively
5. If you are composting, do not add artificial chemicals to your plants

Top design
Sanjay Prakash is a committed eco-friendly architect (a rare breed) who wonders where Delhi’s butterflies have gone

Have you noticed Delhi has such few butterflies now?" says architect Sanjay Prakash, walking us through his sprawling home in Palam Vihar, near the Delhi-Haryana border.

Prakash, 53, lives in a majestic home with domed ceilings, bamboo floored bedrooms and a rooftop kitchen garden. He and his wife and two daughters have made many environmentally friendly modifications to their lives and home.

Sanjay PrakashTo name a few – riding a cycle for local work, not flying or driving when they can go by train or bus, keeping reusable bags in the car to cut the use of plastic bags, separating waste into organic and inorganic and composting the organic, managing with natural ventilation when the weather allows it... phew!

Their house has much more hidden behind, under and over the walls than you can see. Gravity materials like sand and soil were used during landscaping to make it cement-free and pervious, low-flow faucets and showerheads were installed. Low wattage lighting, a south-facing orientation (best suited for Delhi’s climate), optimised natural ventilation, the use of reused glass, a white insulated roof (to keep the building cool) and recycled steel have made this home the iPad 2 of homes – a standard setter.

"Just like you have credit/debit or matter/anti-matter, anything we create must in the end destroy something else," says Prakash. Ernst Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful (a book whose mantra was holistic development) had influenced him to undertake ecologically friendly design as an architect. A stint as a research associate for a professor at IIT Delhi on solar projects across India enhanced his knowledge. And after building many institutional edifices in a ‘green’ manner, Prakash finally decided in 2005 that it was time to be his own employer.

Such has been the appeal of his home’s design that a former Silicon Valley engineer who had bought a plot nearby asked Prakash, who is more of an institutional architect, to design his house. "He almost went on a dharna till I agreed. You can see his house across the street," says Prakash.

Outside, looking at his one lakh-litre rainwater harvesting tank, we notice a white butterfly fluttering by. "Look, did you see that?" Prakash asks. In the end, it’s all for the butterflies.

What you can do
1. Manage with natural ventilation whenever the weather or your state of mind allows this
2. Reduce air-conditioning to the minimum
3. Get air-conditioners with good temperature controls
4. Set them as high as possible (28 °C) to save power
5. Use ceiling fans in combination with the air-conditioners
6. Reduce or eliminate high water elements in your diet: coffee, refined sugar, red meats, white meat. This is healthy for you too!
7. Install a flush cock and reduce the quantities of flushed water

From HT Brunch, September 11

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First Published: Sep 10, 2011 16:16 IST