Gobar Times
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Revolutions at Work

Technically Speaking

It is official. We are tied to technology. From mobile phones to home appliances to motorised vehicles... the list seems unending. And as it gets longer and longer, the alarm bells grow shriller and shriller. The life cycle of these tech-smart products – from the time of manufacturing to use to disposal – read like a veritable death sentence for this Planet. So shall we be forced to choose between cutting edge technology and a healthy Earth? Is it even a practical, do-able option? The debate can continue interminably. Meanwhile, Gobar Times presents a bevy of recent technologies that are attempting to reverse the trend. They are definitely geared up to support a more sustainable, eco-sensitive lifestyle. Some have been around, tried and tested. While some are still to prove their worth for widespread application. But all, without exception, have our vote for potential change, for a common good.

They do not get a pristinely clean chit, but a pat on the back for attempting to clean up our messy, sooty trail.

Yes, DO use phone while driving

phoneSo you are rushing to work or a dance class or even a movie, but are wondering if it will suddenly rain and jam the usual routes. How about skipping that jam to get there, and saving time, fuel and a whole lot of stress? The key could lie in a simple accelerometer that senses traffic conditions, on your phone.

Sensors that count cars and traffic speed have been put to the test on roadbeds and even vehicles around the world. But these have proven too expensive for mass scale use in India. So is there no end in sight for the country’s traffic woes?

Let us not forget the rapidly growing automobile industry.

And that 95 per cent of vehicles registered every year are privately owned. Anumita Roychowdhury of the Centre for Science and Environment’s Clean Air Programme feels that our urban transportation calls for a “paradigm-shift”, backed by government incentives. We agree. But while we wait for India to adopt the latest exhaust emission standards, can we know, and therefore control, driving conditions, ourselves?

As of May 2012, the number of mobile phone subscribers in India swelled to 930 million. This has given researchers a grand cue to shift gears. They feel that the next innovation in the transport sector can be one that we carry with us everywhere. Researchers at Microsoft India, Bangalore, have developed a mobile application, Nericell, that detects potholes, bumps, braking, and honking, as well as air pollution. Another application, EcoSpeed is expected to give consumers-cum- commuters the choice of the most fuel-efficient routes to ply, and save time in the process.

phoneDo you want to know ‘kitna deti hai’? (what is the mileage?) Green Meter computes not just mileage but real-time fuel efficiency, taking the condition of the car and the weather into account, for analysing your carbon footprint as you drive. And then there is Primo Spot. This allows you to sense a free parking space so that no fuel is wasted finding one.

So, the next time you get caught using a phone while you drive, make sure it has to do with a sound plan for the environment. If the tech gurus are right, it might just be.

Maps that talk

When we think of technology that connects us to the future, we also think of the zillion gadgets that connect us to the world around. You may be familiar with the Hollywood movie, The Matrix. But even if you are not, you might have sensed that there is a matrix-like technology at work that binds us, not only to our friends but also to researchers and perhaps, governments. What are we talking about? Satellite mapping, of course!

mapsTraditionally, they helped us to locate sites. Today, however, maps have left their original, parchment prototypes leagues behind. Thanks to digitisation. Mapping softwares increasingly accompany us in our phones, telling us where to find the nearest ATMs, restaurants, movie theatres, complete with user ratings. But that is not all. Mapping now does much, much more than just familiarise us to new neighbourhoods.

Meet geoids, or highly accurate maps of the Earth’s gravity. These are supplying climatologists with data as to where the Arctic ice-sheets are thinning, predicting alterations in global weather patterns, and enabling disaster relief at unimaginably quick speeds. Conservation mapping uses geographic information science (GIS) technology to track the physical distribution of biodiversity. This is allowing biologists to identify and prioritise endangered species for protection, even in hitherto-unexplored marine reserves. Epidemiologists, meanwhile, are setting GIS markers for the spread of communicable diseases, to analyse causes and factors. And urban planners are busy layering population density maps with those of resource-utilisation. Yes, you guessed why. To build scientifically for ever-growing cities.

In India, satellite imaging is being used by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to gather estimates about onion cultivation, revealing the area under the crop and the expected yield in states like Maharashtra and Gujarat. More crops like banana, cashew, grapes and oranges are on the mapping list. And, even as we speak, this technology may even be solving the mysteries of our itinerant monsoons.

That said, do we know where the matrix is leading? Some fear that the answer is ‘straight into our homes’. Maps on Facebook and Twitter-related sites and now even our phones, for instance, tell our friends exactly where we are. With live satellite imaging entering the domain of public internet users, we might be living out the ‘surveillance society’ of sci-fi fantasies. Round-the-clock tabs on the movement of people and vehicles may be closer than we know. At the same time, the end-users we listed also feel that the ‘mappers’ help us to live better. To be able to manage our use of resources, and know the risks to model scenarios before committing to real-time plans. Perhaps, the answer is something only time, and not maps, will tell.

ICM sets them free

We might be happier when we know that what we are eating is also good for us. Can we give the same joy to our food? With erratic rains and synthetic methods to enhance productivity, our foodcrops are facing a crunch, and that is even before they have reached our mouths. Particularly affected are ‘celebrity’ crops like paddy. High costs of cultivation and scarcity of labour are leading to large expanses of paddy fields being left fallow across a once-green countryside. Experts, however, feel that the solution is close at hand.

icmSince the beginning of settled agriculture in India, farmers have practiced tilling by matching climate, seasons and crops. They successfully integrated crop residues and organic inputs into a productive, and yet, non-polluting system. And the fact that badly-managed agriculture could lead to food insecurity, ravage natural resources, and ultimately result in poor nutrition and health, was, well, known.

Today, Integrated Crop Management (ICM) is taking the best of the traditional and the modern, giving not just crops, but farmers that practice it, a new lease of life. In ICM, compatible crop management practices are combined to make the best use of available resources. Albeit not at the cutting edge of technology.

In paddy cultivation in Kerala, plastic sheets for nursing seedlings are gradually being replaced with mats made of coconut fronds and banana leaves. This reduces the cost of raising the seedlings, is organic, and is readily available, to boot. Site-specific nutrient management is ensured through careful soil analysis. And organic nutrients (manure) and intermittent irrigation cut down on the indiscriminate use of chemical (nitrogenous) fertilisers and water. Crop rotation also reduces soil erosion. How? Nitrogen-fixing plants evenly balance the play of nutrients, keeping soil healthy and intact. To seal the ‘green’ deal, another element is added to this home-remedied diet. Integrated pest and disease management (IPDM) uses bacterial bio-agents like pseudomonas and natural enemies like predatory insects to keep disease and pests at bay.

Dr Dinesh Kumar, Senior Scientist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) believes that there can be no single ‘blueprint’ or ideal ICM system to solve the diverse problems that plague Indian agriculture. Yet, he feels, it is proving be a sustainable approach to land-use. One that encompasses crops, soils, environment, climate change, production, and environmental economics. We agree.

‘Sun’ny solution

Last month, in India’s worst ever grid failure, 700 million Indians were plunged into darkness in ten states, causing havoc at train stations, airports, hospitals and on roads.

Power shortages across the country, anyway dominate the headlines all through the year. So little wonder that we are now waking up to the backbreaking burden on our national grids, and the non-replenishing fossil fuels they depend on. And all eyes are now turning to alternative and renewable energy sources.

sunIn 2008, the Indian Prime Minister announced the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM). So back then it was already clear that India was thinking of energy alternatives. And has invested in the world’s most expensive solar energy programme. JNNSM plans to install 20,000 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected solar power by 2022. The cost to the public, from 2012 till 2047, is expected to be more than Rs 2 lakh crore. But the question now is: will public support and subsidies suffice to realise our sustainable energy goal, when the ground realities of market practice are posing huge challenges? While India has an installed manufacturing capacity of 980 megawatts (MW) for photovoltaic cells, besides mirrors, tubes, special turbines, molten salts for storage of heat, the manufacturers of these components are running into bankruptcy. Many, like Indosolar, the country’s largest manufacturer of solar photovoltaic cells, feel the arena is clamped by international competition.

The solution? We cannot say it is foolproof, but villages like Sonari, 50 kms from Lucknow, might be willing to vouch for it. Each week, the village of 1,700 inhabitants receives 240 units of off-grid solar power. This translates to electricity for about nine hours a day and six days a week. Similar off-grid plants are powering other parts of the country. Like Darewadi. Forty households in this village in Maharashtra have each paid Rs 1,000 for solar electricity connections delivered by Gram Oorja Solutions, which also supplies to Sonari. And in rural homes across Karnataka, 100,000 solar lighting systems have been set up over 17 years by the Bangalore-based Selco Solar.

Indeed, for the 10,600 villages across the country that are too far from electricity grids, off-grid may just prove to be a clinching deal. Especially since maintenance costs and poor distribution and servicing networks continue to challenge JNNSM. And we need not look far for a mass-scale yet decentralised and sustainable energy model. We are talking about the success of Grameen Shakti in Bangladesh, one of the largest rural-based renewable energy companies in the world (Refer to GT Issue No 95, 1-15 August 2009). And that is not to overlook the success of mainstream renewable energy projects in India, such as those in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh. But could a Plan B not complement Plan A?

The Microbe Mandarins

Many of us have grown up hearing riveting stories about lakes and ponds with healing properties that cured disease-afflicted kings. The latter then expressed gratitude by building legendary cities and towns around these lakes.

Today, though, the story has to be told differently. While most of these water bodies have degenerated into local dumpyards, those which still exist are choking with an overload of untreated sewage flowing in from the neighbourhood. Modern-day administrators are working at centralised sewage treatment. But this is expensive and complex. And, feels Deblina Diwedi of CSE, it also fails to cater to the vast amounts of wastewater generated by us. But hold on. A little bug action may just save the day.

imaeBioremediation is the use of living micro-organisms to degrade planetary polluters into less toxic forms. It uses naturally occurring bacteria and fungi or plants to do this, and these are often indigenous to contaminated areas. Sometimes they are brought to the site externally. Then the contaminant compounds are transformed by the nifty micro-organisms through reactions caused by their metabolic processes.

Hauz Khas, a lake in a posh Delhi suburb, was plagued by untreated sewage from a nearby treatment plant in Delhi. The ‘royal tank’ (literal translation) was built way back in the 14th century by the Delhi Sultan, Allauddin Khilji to supply water to his grand fort at Siri. It was later re-excavated by Sultan Firozshah Tughlaq, whose tomb still overlooks the lake.

Hauz Khas harvested rainwater during acute water shortages and perhaps healed some royals as well. But this time around, it was the lake’s turn to be healed. Bioremediation experts teamed up with the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), with Persnickety® 713 as their bacterial mix of choice. Lo and behold, it decomposed the accumulated sludge and large organic molecules into simpler ones that it could consume. It also effectively controlled odour, reduced oil and grease accumulated in the water and controlled its nutrient level. With no construction or additional infrastructure required, bioremediation proved cost-effective too. “But,” feels Diwedi, “its success on the field cannot be determined in the pre-regulated conditions of laboratories. Thus, the technology, which is as yet nascent in India, requires sustained support from policy-stakeholders.”

Recent researchers have thrown up a nebulous territory for bio-remediation to work its wonders: treating radioactive nuclear waste. As a result, it has found favour among supporters of non-polluting nuclear energy. But in India, perhaps, we can look to clean water-bodies which traditionally nurtured us, before we burden micro-organisms with questionable quick-fixes for the future. Would you agree?

Don’t call us, we will call you

So while we have listed the technologies that are rocking our socks, we have not forgotten the other ‘side’ of the techno tale-spin. The history of humanity has seen path-breaking inventions. But it has also seen them usurped by vested interests. Still, we feel, the technology that ultimately drives change is the human machine. So, what say we resist our ‘buy-buy’ impulses? Hold on to our demands for cutting-edge gadgets that may not promise a better environment, and invest instead in real ‘eco-tech’, with long-term benefits.

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Revolutions at Work