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Perhaps my interest in sustainable living and responsible consumption began in Punjab in 2007. I, along with some classmates and professors from university, went on a field trip to a Punjabi village called Daudpur (District Khanna). The idea behind the trip was to see for ourselves what we studied in our textbooks – the issues ailing rural India and Indian agriculture.

Daudpur lies between Chandigarh and Ludhiana (Source: Google Maps)

I don’t think any of us were really expecting it to be as powerful and as impressive of an experience as it turned out to be.

We learnt of the many challenges the farmers in this prosperous region faced. These ranged from all-powerful middlemen to erratic power supply, caste divisions to disinterested youth, and migration to politics and policies. Each of us probably took something different from that experience. What remains most strongly with me is how rice cultivation is swallowing up the region’s water resources.

The unsustainability of rice production in Punjab

Rice typically grows in water surplus areas and needs an average of 2,500 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rough rice. This figure is 2-3 times that of other major cereals. It is then surprising that rice (including the famous basmati) is cultivated in the relatively dry areas of North India.

In fact, Punjab didn’t always grow such large quantities of rice. The area under rice was under 50,000 ha in 1973-74 and expanded vastly to 2.6 million ha in 1999-2000 (over 60 per cent of the total land under cultivation). The largest expansion in area under cultivation came in the 1970s, when it rose by about 12 per cent. This was the era of the Green Revolution, when yields rose by their heighest margin – 5.3 per cent over the the same decade.The extensive coverage of irrigation in this region too was a factor behind this boom in rice cultivation.

This huge expansion of land under rice cultivation has naturally led to a massive depletion of water in the region. This map expresses the sense of urgency:

Groundwater withdrawals in India - satellite image by NASA and UC Irvine

You will notice something is wrong, somewhere around where the map becomes red. It is the water withdrawal in the north (including Punjab) of the country. The data shows that groundwater has been receding at the rate of as much as 1 foot per year over the past decade (1999-2009). This is much faster than the rate of replenishment and is an indication of the impending disaster awaiting us. Most of this groundwater goes for irrigation (over 90 per cent of the country’s total fresh water, as we saw earlier here).

A drastic intervention is needed

The pattern of water use in the region must change. Specifically, Punjab must shift away from rice cultivation, and all cultivation must be made more responsible in the use of ground water. Irrigation must be made more efficient while rain water should be harvested.

These changes would entail a huge overhaul in the present agricultural and groundwater policy:

  1. The minimum support price (MSP) offered for rice is higher than other crops. This, according to the farmers we visited in Daudpur, was the main reason they opted for rice over other crops. The MSP is a government regulated price at which the state offers to buy farmer’s produce. While it is intended to be a minimum price, by default, it is also the maximum – the oligopolistic private buyers do not propose much higher rates.
  2. The electricity needed to operate tube wells is provided to farmers for free. This has often been blamed for the indiscriminate swallowing of groundwater. Farmers said this wasn’t the real reason as they, more than anyone, know the true value of water. And they much preferred a dependable and consistent supply of electricity to a free one.
  3. There is no monitoring of the digging of tube wells. The farmers in Daudpur spoke of the rapid deepening of tube well lengths in the village as the ground water receded. Some sources put this dropping of the water table at 3 feet a year. While there are some laws concerning the digging and the length of tube wells, the control of the authorities over the matter was negligible.

And so, in order to make sure the north of India isn’t desertified, we require a concerted effort at policy change. Included in this will be the question as to how environmentally sustainable GM and high yielding variety of seeds – requiring larger quantities of chemicals and water – really are.

Though, since consumption goes hand in hand with disposal, this post should probably be called ‘Ten facts about consumption and disposal in India’.

1. An average Indian consumes 52 cubic metres of water a year - a fourth of that of a person in the USA who uses 215 cubic metres, and half of a French person who uses 106 cubic metres. Despite this conservative consumption, Indians are consuming much beyond their means. This is clearly due to the huge population the land supports. The following map shows that renewable water reserves in the country are among the lowest in the world.

Annual water availability (from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development)

2. In 2000, of the total water used in the country, 89 per cent was used in agriculture and 6 per cent in industries. The remaining 5 per cent was for daily personal usage. This huge share of water consumption by agriculture is a common feature among less developed nations. Industry is the largest consumer of water in more industrialized nations.

3. In 2004-05, an average Indian spent half of her income on food. Of this, 30 per cent was spent on cereals, 23 per cent on meat and dairy, and about 16 per cent on vegetables and fruits (Source: NSSO).

4. Despite the country’s growing prosperity, malnutrition among children has increasedThis has been a puzzle to policy makers, economists, nutritionists and the alike. Even among the richer sections of the population, malnutrition makes a surprising presence.

5. Indians are the largest consumers of gold in the world, accounting for 20 per cent of the world demand. They are also the largest consumers of milk, and some might suggest, of news.

Gold is at home in India

6. National Geographic’s Greendex rates Indians as the most sustainable consumers of  all (17) countries participating in the survey. These countries included China, Korea, Japan, Australia, Russia, Germany, France, USA, Canada, Mexico among others.

7. India’s fertilizer use in 2008 was higher than that of USA, France and Spain according to the World Bank. Good news or bad news, you decide!

8. Recycling is a traditional business in India. My Sunday memories are of the ‘kabadiwallah’ coming to collect our old newspapers and beer bottles for which he paid us a small price. He got a higher price for reselling/recycling them, though I doubt the profit margin was much.

9. Rag-picking is the darker side of waste disposal. The government doesn’t collect the waste but there are people who you must pay to take your waste. (Interesting how paper and glass you get paid for while garbage you must pay to remove.) They then sort through it, to see what is worth keeping/recycling, and what is to be disposed. Other ragpickers join them at the landfill site. Research by NGO Chintan shows that about 1 in 100 persons living in Delhi works in this occupation. They together save about Rupees 600,000 daily by saving and recycling objects.

A rag picker sorting through the rubbish ( AFP PHOTO/TENGKU BAHAR)

10. Some 40 to 50 thousand tonnes of e-waste (old computers and computer parts) is imported into India every month. Here it is sorted and recycled under inadequate safety measures. Most of this trade is illegal, coming from USA and Europe. Green peace states that inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of the waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal.

In recent years, silicone has taken over our kitchens. It has brought us convenient, reusable and attractive cookware. In my own little nomadic kitchen, I have mini muffin moulds, spatulas, a baking sheet, an ice tray and a brand new chocolate making kit.

Colourful and convenient

Convenient cookware

Silicone cookware (and bakeware, in particular) is great for many reasons:

  • It is reusable and long-lasting.  If taken care of, it can last a long, long time.
  • It is non-stick and requires little or no greasing. For this and the above reason, it is especially useful when you have to make multiple batches of baked goodies as you don’t need to wash the moulds or baking sheets in-between.
  • It is usually cute and colourful, and that is something one can’t really complaint about!
  • It is proven non-toxic and is thus probably a smarter choice than teflon, the safety of which raises many a concern. While it melts at temperatures that are too high (above 220°C/428°F), it doesn’t release toxic chemicals.

With this one last point though, you have to be careful since some silicone products aren’t 100% silicone but instead combine other materials as well. The legendary silpat, the favorite of many chefs over the world, is made of a mixture of silicone and fiberglass. So to know whether it is safe to use, you must know whether this mix is safe at high temperatures as well (Answer: the FDA says it is).

The silpat contains both silicone and fiberglass

Reusable spells eco-friendly?

The fact that silicone utensils are reusable and last a long time also means that they are good for the environment. Since we don’t use them and then promptly throw them away, we keep our waste at a minimum.

New inventions such as the silicone suction lid also reduce our use of plastic cling films by replacing them with a reusable and thus more eco-friendly alternative.

A silicone suction lid obviates the need for cling film

But silicone is eco-friendly only if it is used in the right way. If we buy more than we need (multiple untouched cute cup-cake moulds, anyone?), we would only be adding to the unnecessary stuff weighing down on our planet.

And this is especially dangerous since silicone isn’t quite biodegradable. It is supposed to be recyclable, but recycling a spatula or an ice-cube tray without any indications on it can be a bit tricky for the best of us. That is, if your area’s waste disposal does recycle it.

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Further reading: Silicone cookware – the things you need to know

A very informative graphic from FlowingData. Data is for March 2011 or before.

Petrol prices around the world

The data doesn’t account for purchasing power differences across countries. I’m pretty sure that would distort the picture quite a bit!

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