Painted In Surreal Shades Of Green

Clean Up Or Close Down
November 1, 1995
Startling Revelations
December 27, 1995

Painted In Surreal Shades Of Green

IQBAL Mallik, 35, is in the process of sketching the profile of homo sapiens who get a kick out of teasing animals at the Delhi Zoo. Most of them, Iqbal says, are males in groups. Monkeys and chimpanzees are mimicked, tigers are provoked, carnivorous otters are fed popcorn, and stones find their way into hippo gullets. In the face of such assault, monkeys start shaking uncontrollably, the chimps (which incidentally share 94 per cent of their DNA with humans) become hyperactive and the tigers get restless.

Then there is 64-year-old Ajoy Bagchi, executive director of the People’s Commission on Environment and Development, an NGO respirating on German grants in Delhi, who dabbles prolifically in environmental advocacy, that is, channeling public insight into ecological issues to various state governments and even the Centre.

Mallik and Bagchi are the two ends of an arc, both in terms of age and activity, that is taking huge compass leaps by the year. Though easily categorised as greenies, the greenie sub-sects are becoming a maze as complicated as the plumbing network in a housing complex or the local telephone node—and the people pirouetting in their focus areas, younger by the day. So we have organic greenies, garbage greenies, industrial waste greenies, ban-this-ban-that greenies, animal greenies, seminar greenies, communication greenies, greenies who dabble in law, greenies who toss herbs, survey greenies, run-a-school greenies, planning greenies, plant-a-tree greenies, recycle-paper greenies, awareness greenies, casual greenies and even mental-space greenies who shoot about inner harmony and the soul.

Then, of course, the icing on the whole sect, the status everybody aspires to, the international jet-set greenie. The greenie who has systematically accumulated brownie points over the years to get his shot at warbling on ozone or global warming at Geneva or New York or wherever get-togethers on mega-problems are held these days.

And even as the 40-plus warbler is getting pushed by the ’60s urban baby—exposed to the whole deluge of horrific environment scenarios during the entire ’70s and ’80s—where the new convert is really scoring is with his funky idealism and sheer zeal. The new breed is also sprouting from a background as colourful and diverse as a Dali canvas and for them theories of alternate lifestyles are career options and sometimes even springboards for higher academic accumulation in fancy universities abroad.

To give a sampler. A group of five students from a Delhi college banded together to form Srishti, a nature club, in 1988. Says Bharati Chaturvedi, now 25 and one of the two existing original members: “We started off as a very wildlifey, fun bunch then. Now we are into developing models for domestic garbage disposal, and working on other projects sponsored by the Delhi Administration and even the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).” Bharati is married to an officer of the Indian Foreign Service and plans to stick on in Delhi even when her husband gets posted abroad. She draws a token salary of Rs 3,500, has refused higher offers from other organisations, composts all her garbage, sees Srishti as a social catalyst and specialises in “inconvenient solutions”. Two of Srishti’s original members are currently pursuing ecological PhDs in the US, one at Yale and the other at Duke.

For some, the commitment goes even deeper. Delhi’s Mirambika school, at Aurobindo Ashram, has 40 teachers catering to 133 children, from nursery to class six; that is, a student-teacher ratio of 3:1. The school doesn’t depend on text books or syllabi or examinations for teaching children. Says Partho, principal of the school: “We want to build a new paradigm for children. A model more humane.” The teachers are non-salaried. While around 30 per cent of them are of independent means, the others stay and have their needs taken care of by the ashram. Says Ameeta Mehra, 30, who currently manages her father’s 200-horse stud farm at Gurgaon, 40 km from Delhi: “I taught at the school for four years. My first love is still education.” The school has done a project with the United Nations to sensitise children towards the environment. Explains Partho: “Without proselytising we try to develop an awareness so that when the children reach their teens they are aware of alternate lifestyles. The parents of our children are also people who have broken away from conventional lifestyles.”

One of them is Romen Kapoor, 42, whose son Dheeraj is a student in Class II at the school. Kapoor makes educational audio-cassettes for children with a strong leaning towards the environment and writes books on topics like smart housekeeping, bread making and gardening. He doesn’t take newspapers, nor does he eat meat. He also spews statistics like “with the same resources that go into producing one kilo of meat, one can grow three kilos of grain”. The children at Mirambika don’t like holidays as they mean being away from school.

Incidentally, a survey done in 1,000 Delhi schools by the Indian Institute of Ecology and Environment last year revealed a high degree of awareness on environmental issues among children. Ninety per cent of them wanted environment-related debates and essay competitions to be held on a more regular basis. The institute itself, operational since 1986, has trained 200,000 persons at the post-graduate level through correspondence courses so far. Says Professor P.R. Trivedi, chairman of the institute: “Each student doing a course through us has to submit an ecological report. We have over two lakh reports on more than 500 places in India.”

SCHOOLS and institutes are not the only medium through which awareness is spreading. Living on the Edge, an environment serial aired on Doordarshan every Sunday, has just completed a year. Says Niret Alva, producer of the serial: “The response we have had from small towns and villages has been tremendous. And surprisingly, the stories which got the maximum response were our so-called small stories, the ones about mud-brick making and vermiculture.” Though Alva admits that it is physically impossible to reply to a majority of the letters that the programme receives, there are some that he simply cannot ignore. For instance, a child suffering from asthma asked them to write to his mother that it was okay to have a pet. Working on the serial itself has changed Alva’s outlook considerably over the past year. As he says, “I have turned vegetarian. I have this mania for switching off lights in the house. I avoid plastics and I refuse to buy disposable diapers for my baby.”

What’s strange, however, is the large number of trained architects turning into practising greenies. Srishti, for instance, gets its largest chunk of volunteers from the Indian School of Planning and Architecture (ISPA). Most of them work solo though. Shubendu Kaushik, 30, an ISPA graduate, has been spending time in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, since 1992 trying to prevent the local populace from switching to concrete in building design. He has also formed a Spiti Tourism and Management Society to try to put Spiti on the tourism map.

Big cities don’t make sense to Kaushik any more. He says: “I am more at peace trying to explore routes between Spiti and Chang Thang (bordering Ladakh and 700 km away by road).” He uses a cycle for transport when in Delhi and supports himself by writing occasionally. His constant lament though is that environmentalists are too busy trying to save the planet instead of changing their own lives. And that there is hardly a place in Delhi for out-of-pocket greenies to hang about and exchange ideas.

One such place which started off with precisely this idea in mind, in the late ’80s, is the People Tree shop in Connaught Place. Peddling books with titles like The Future of North-South Relations, Sustaining Diversity, Deforestation & Desertification and The Price of Forests, hand-painted T-shirts in the Rs 100-Rs 300 range, tyre chappals, metal souvenirs, recycled paper and other such assorted knick-knacks, the shop has a committed clientele in the 15-35 age group. Says Gurpreet Sen, National Institute of Design graduate and owner of the shop: “We get a lot of tourists and greenies. Westarted off initially with the idea of being a casual, hang-out place. Maybe we were just trying to find out what we were.” Though Gurpreet isn’t quite comfortable with the greenie label, the messages on her T-shirts are mostly green. And she has stopped stocking gross amounts of leather items in deference to teenage girls who often break into arguments with her on the ethics of selling animal skin.

Interestingly, an occasional customer at the shop is Sarit Jafa, director of audit at the Directorate General of Audit. Thirty-something Jafa says with a tinge of humour that he goes to People Tree to pick up anti-government stuff. Though Jafa would like to go the greenie way, he says the pressures of city life don’t allow him an alternate lifestyle. Says he: “Unfortunately, branded health food in India is only for the elite. The only health food I can allow myself is the personally supervised chakki atta.”

The greenie phenomenon hasn’t bypassed the largely villainous corporate world either. Though it’s fashionable for corporate houses to take up tree planting projects or adopt a village, the monoliths have intractable tendencies to operate as faceless blocks of goodwill. So it comes as a surprise when one manages to stray towards the occasional greenie spirit with a name, like 55-year-old Kalyan Bose at Tata Unisys. Bose started a campaign recently to have more electric crematoria in Delhi. Pursuing his plan relentlessly, he lobbied with Delhi’s BJP government and pushed a proposal to set up 12 crematoria in the city, which at the moment has only one. Says he: “Imagine the amount of wood we use in burning bodies. Once the crematoria come up they are going to make a huge difference.”

Bose isn’t stopping here either. Along with a group of friends he is planning to institute an annual green award at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, for the best ecology project undertaken by a student. “It could be setting up 1,000 beehives in Delhi. In fact we don’t want to limit their creativity by suggesting projects.”

Another kindred soul is Shanker Ghose of Shriram Food & Fertilisers Ltd. Ghose picked up cudgels sometime back on behalf of 60-year-old trees at Tolstoy Marg facing the New Delhi Municipal Corporation’s axe. Starting a full-fledged campaign, Ghose managed to stay the operation.

There is even a touch of the bizarre. In 1993, the Earth Foundation, an environmental NGO in Delhi, got the UNDP to take some remedial action because a particular species of monkeys was becoming extinct in an island off the Caribbean. But even though the Indian greenie might be developing international tentacles, he isn’t quite gung-ho about the general flow of things. Says Ranmal Singh Jhala, 42, who specialises in a field labelled Ecology and Art: “Environment in its practical aspectsis still peripheral in India. It’s in for some people for some time but more often it just fades away.” Jhala is also quite peeved at the burgeoning consumerist culture—essentially the phantom that wealth is monetary. Says he: “In a village, kids make toys out of virtually nothing. In the cities it is easier to buy toys than make them. For me wealth is how resourceful you can be with what you have.”

In fact, that’s a refrain that all greenies echo almost verbatim. Says Bittu Sehgal, 48, a noted wildlife activist and publisher based in Bombay: “We are all part of the problem and unless we can counter this consumer god, our best efforts can only slow the rate of decline.” Sehgal’s own efforts these days lie in trying to ingest the planning process with a healthy dose of common sense.

Something which Suneeta Rao at Kalpavriksha, another Delhi-based environmental NGO, achieves by being perpetually involved in a Red Indian battle with bureaucrats. Rao herself is, however, very sceptical about many of her ilk. “These days the moment you start thinking green there are big green bucks around to be netted. If you speak broken English, it is that much easier to get funds from agencies abroad. Delhi alone has 60 environmental NGOs,” she notes. NGOs themselves are drawing flak for adopting the same features that they originally criticised in multinationals: organisation in particular and the trait to make compromises.

As Kaushik says, “No one feels any longer. Let’s talk about saving a tree first instead of talking about forests.”

And while the greenies are about that, let them go about their business with unwrinkled brows.

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