India insights: education, remediation and the environment

I’d been really looking forward to visiting the Centre for Environmental Education, as how we teach and appreciate the environment has been one of the threads running through this trip. It didn’t disappoint.

I first meet some of the team at CEE, who are developing the Urja Chetana Project. Amongst other things, they are getting schools to compost food waste as a means of embedding good environmental habits and a sense of practicality towards recycling and waste. We compare notes – I show her the Foodloop activities at Maiden Lane in London (and the Saturday composting rounds I’m missing). Because their systems are slightly different, they work only with uncooked waste – peelings etc. and layer this with manure and soil in 80L vats. Periodically the students mix and season the compost. As with all composting programs, one of the challenges lies with securing time for volunteers to do the composting, with exams and school holidays. One that we have yet to crack either! Once one school year finishes, the composting baton is passed to the year below. In addition to this they organise visits to power plants (the scheme is funded by the CSR money from CESC) and set energy challenges for the students to reduce electricity use at home. In particular they work with a lot of state schools, and their materials help the teachers.

The Kolkata office is headed up by Reema Banerjee, a marvellously energetic and straight-talking lady. with whom I chat for so long that I’m only aware of it beginning to get dark when I try and take a photograph. With so many years of experience working on projects with field trials with academic partners, Reema has a wealth of insight into how bioremediation has been attempted here in India. Rather than recite it all back, I’ll try and synthesise some of our discussions.

You can’t divorce the social aspect from the technical
Reema described a village where huge quantities of lindane sludge had been dumped. At first, the farmers loved it, helping themselves and spreading it around their crops to deter termites. Then cows started to die. People developed skin complaints. The villagers wrote off any link between the sludge and their health. Efforts to help clean up were met with distrust. CEE organised women and health clinics where they could subtly glean data, and cattle camps to talk to the men. Establishing a point of entry was crucial. The only way to enable change was to identify community motivators within the local people and make them part of the process- technological intervention would never have worked alone.

Consider what happens after an expensive pilot
Techniques like phytoremediation are dogged with the label of being expensive. The lindane incident was also the site of a pilot. Costs were high – as academic costs tend to be. “For our academics it is ‘publish or perish’” Reema says, and this isn’t always compatible with deploying technology. When NGOs make their final report on technology recommendations for clean up, the first things they consider are cost, complexity and maintenance.
(I immediately envision an expensive rusting bioreactor with a broken control system lying dormant beside a contaminated lake.)

Pick your battles
In Orissa, mercury contamination is all pervasive. While the local government insist that it is a naturally occurring element in the region, there is no question that it has been liberated in the past via a hypochlorite plant. To the extent that the beach shimmers. In this case the pollutant is so diffuse and widespread it makes it hard to demonstrate a technology effectively, or even to know where to begin.

Making waste treatment sector specific
The Ganga clean up is another major Modi mission. One of the problems that has plagued wastewater treatment up until now is the volume and variation in material entering into the treatment plants. Grouping industries and sharing primary effluent treatment in a sector specific manner would reduce the burden downstream. That would enable any biotreatment plant to concentrate on one aspect, and give the microorganisms/plants/bugs a chance of success.

Implementation needs to be culturally sensitive and location appropriate
Anaerobic digestion of sewage is one method of approaching waste treatment. The resulting biogas can be a neat way to provide a source of clean energy for cooking and lighting. However, not all religious beliefs in India will permit this. Checking this before embarking on a pilot or trial isn’t time consuming! Later, I was thinking about GM technologies, like the iGEM entries on biosensors and how these might be received.
Another project with a university trialled a biofilter for water treatment. In this particular village, water only came on once a day, and the filter slowed the flow rate so they couldn’t fill their receptacles in time. Furthermore, they fouled fast, meaning people discarded them before the evaluation had finished. It isn’t easy to come back with a second prototype to the same village as their cynicism will be high. Better to design it with these considerations in mind first, rather than retrofitting later.

Putting an I in environment
“If you look at the definition of environment in school textbooks”, Reema says, “they say the environment is the everything surrounding us, there’s no mention of the individual”. She thinks this definition is flawed – it should be ‘everything that surrounds me’, or incorporate some kind of personal relationship so that environment is a personal responsibility.
This chimes perfectly with conversations in China, where the environment is painted as equally abstract, with a notion of “otherness”. She says that here in India there’s a leap to be made in awareness, that keeping your house clean for Modi’s sanitation drive should extend to keeping your locality and municipality clean. Again this difficulty of valuing the environment arises: “When we go on holiday to the seaside, we give money to the hotel, spend on transportation to get there…but does the beach, the very thing we came to see, ask for anything?”

Public health and pollution never seems to be high on the agenda…sadly
CSR programs concentrate on good causes – but long term public health problems caused by pollution are grinding reminders of our own behaviour. Tackling the root of this is to address our desires for cheap items, or corruption, or failures at government level to properly regulate waste. Long term, messy problems. In some ways, it is easier to fight a disease, a virus, an impersonal agent, rather than a human.
Pollution is thought to cause more premature deaths than AIDS or malaria combined, according to the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, yet receives a fraction of the attention or funding.

Women and the environment
Reema is a great example of a leader: technically astute, but has an appreciation that to make projects really stick, you need to comprehend the people that you work with. These are also fine lessons demonstrated to me when I worked with Beatrix and Liliya. Reema really advocates women coming to work in this sector, bringing both scientific expertise and social sensitivity to teams.
I wander home, my mind buzzing with our discussions. I’m in a good mood, having had such a fascinating and fulfilling conversation. As I turn out of Park St station, and glance at a magazine stand I see something that taints my fine spirits.

Yes, a cream will really help.

Really, a cream that will help you to “brave pollution”?

Do we need to talk about this?

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One response to “India insights: education, remediation and the environment

  1. Pingback: An environmental firebrand, Rohit Prajapati | Brenda Parker·

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