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Those who made a difference in the year just gone by

imageWe are still wrapping up 2011 and all that it brought to the table. A rather dismal scenario, really. Politics, economics, social order – everything, everywhere seems to have been on a tailspin. Politicians, economists, technocrats and social leaders across the globe have spent the year scrambling to stop the downward spiral. And failed.

So a rather lacklustre year, right? Wrong.

GT decided to show you how common man (and woman, of course) triumphed where the so-called leaders flopped. Here are some success stories that you probably missed. Not because they are insignificant but because mainstream media failed to pick these up. A pity, because this is the stuff real heroes are made of. GT salutes these small yet significant steps to save the environment.

Dial a rickshaw, anyone?
Well, you would not be left with a choice if you were in Fazilka, a small town in Punjab where a ‘car-free zone’ has been created in the Ghanta Ghar market, the city’s busiest commercial area. A ‘car-free zone’ literally means that cars have been banished from this area, which is now served only by non-motorised cycle rickshaws, known as ‘ecocabs’. The unprecedented example has ben planned and executed by the Graduates Welfare Association Fazilka (GWAF), a non-profit organisation, run by ex-graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology. The Ecocab centres work along the lines of ‘dial-a-cab’ service. Here is how: There are five subcentres, each catering to a cluster of 1500 houses – There are 45,000 vehicles in this town with a population of around 70,000. The call centre at the nearest zone receives a call and a rickshaw promptly arrives at the caller’s destination in less than five minutes.

It is a win-win situation for all. Vendors in the area are happy as the sales have soared. Customers are more relaxed as they do not have to jostle with parked vehicles. The biggest beneficiary??The environment. “We are contributing to the environment on a daily basis,” says Navdeep Asija, Secretary, GWAF.

The association is planning to give digital identity cards to the rickshaw pullers and help them financially by facilitating advertising on their vehicles. A town spanning 10.29 sq km, it can easily become a pedestrian's city with vehicles used only to transport goods. Here is to more firsts in Fazilka, the first town in the country to have a dial-a-rickshaw facility!

Saving the Aravalis

The Aravalis in 2009  
The Aravalis in 2009  
The Aravalis in 2009  
A greener pasture in 2011  
The Aravalis in 2009  
Photos: Pedalyatri  

They are a group of cyclists “pedaling here and there”. That is how Rajesh Kalra, founder, Pedalyatri, describes his group of enthusiastic Gurgaon cyclists. It all started with a simple aim “to explore hidden treasures around Gurgaon, Faridabad and Delhi”. But the journey of this group of professionals (most already perched pretty high up in their career graphs, and rising even higher) has been adventurous. To say the least.

On one of their weekly GPS-led trips to the Aravalis in 2009, Rajesh and a few other members discovered a ‘giant hole’. At first, it seemed like a “valley tucked in the backyard of our homes” but a close look shocked them all. Around the same time, the Supreme Court (SC) suspended mining due to the havoc wrought upon this crucial range.

“Basically what we had discovered was not our own 'rift valley' but simply another disgusting case of human greed led rape of nature,” says Rajesh, Times Internet’s Chief Editor, when not exploring the hinterland.

“Ever since, we have visiting the area frequently and have seen how nature heals itself. This is not to say that clandestine mining was not happening after the ban. However, the culprits were forced to use camels instead of giant trucks and carry out their operations at night. It was reduced to illegal activities,” he tells us.

But it looks like they have friends in high places who are working hard to make their job even easier. Some 20 months after the 2009 SC ruling, the Haryana government has drawn up a fresh plan to revive mining in the ravaged parts – already 609 hectares have been identified for mining.

“We have tried to create awareness around the issue. Our group has some fairly influential members of different rajesh kalraprofessions, who have tried to inform the relevant people who can intervene, effectively. But even when safeguards are created, who follows them? ” he adds.

We do not know what lies ahead on the rocky roads of Aravalis. What we do know is the power of a citizens’ initiative such as the Pedalyatri.

With no apparent development or political agenda, this group of professionals otherwise stereotyped as lackadaisical has played a critical role in dragging to the centrestage the surreptitious activities of a powerful cabal and their scary aftermaths.

More power to them.

Let there be Rice...

Meet Gyanesh Pandey who left his luxurious lifestyle and secure job to return to Tamhuka, his village in Bihar, to set up power plants that use rice husk to generate electricity. Rice husk is the mainstay of villagers in this hamlet. Not only has his village been given the gift of light, so have 120 other villages in Bihar and three in Uttar Pradesh. Today, Gyanesh owns Husk Power Systems, operating 40 mini power plants.

By the end of this year, he hopes to bring electricity to villages in other states like Maharashtra and West Bengal as well. His company has already identified 25,000 rice producing villages in India that could implement this model. How does it work? The rice husk is put through a process of controlled burning to produce a specific mixture of gases – carbon monoxide, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.

This mix, called producer gas, is combustible in nature and when fed into a gas engine, drives an alternator to produce electric energy. Around 2 kilos of rice husk produces one kilowatt of energy.

Rocket science for rural India

rocket10 year-old Raju lived in a small village called Wayanad in Kerala. He had not been feeling well for the past two days and Maya, his mother, took him to the local hospital. The doctor examined Raju, and then turned to his computer and began teleconfe­rencing with another doctor sitting in Mumbai. A satellite orbitting in space made the teleconferencing possible.

Sounds too futuristic for a small village? It is not. In fact, thanks to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), hundreds of villages today are equipped with similar technology. And not just for medical care but for education and agriculture as well. All this has been made possible by setting up the Villages Resource Centres (VRC) in the remotest corners of the country.

What is a VRC?
A centre that provides services like health care, education and agricultural advisory in villages situated in remote corners of the country through a satellite-enabled programme.

How does it work?
It is quite simple, really. Satellite connection helps to connect these remote villages to expert centres like hospitals and universities. Once the connection is established, information is passed from the expert centre to a person sitting with a computer in the village, using the teleconferencing technology.


Farmers become customers

Another initiative that is changing the way farmers practice agriculture is the Reuters Market Light. It delivers customised information to farmers depending on the crop they grow.

Weather information, global selling trends, methods of using fertilizer or any other news regarding the crop are all fed to the farmers. Not only does it financially aid the farmers but the information also helps conserve the environment by suggesting appropriate ways of irrigations and using the right fertiliser.

If the results are anything to go by, the day is not too far when every child will have a chance at getting a decent education and every farmer will have a bumper crop year after year.


To know more, we spoke to Dr J R Sharma from ISRO.
GT: How did the programme come about?
Dr Sharma:
It was the brainchild of our former chairman Dr Madhavan Nair. He wanted technology to be of use to the common man and suggested the idea of a space portal that could help a villager get the same medical attention as a city based person would.

GT: How do you decide where to set up a VRC?
Dr Sharma:
Villages that are completely cut off from the rest of the country, villages that do not have even the basic amenities are our priority. The programme works for all round improvement – development of agricultural land, regeneration of wasteland, development of catchment areas and even water harvesting.

Have the VRCs really benefitted the common man? We spoke to PS Bhati, who has helped setting up the centres in Rajasthan in 2011.

“We have 14 VRCs in Rajasthan today. We initiated a programme called the Gyandoot, under which children could learn to read and write. We also had audio and video programmes for farmers to introduce them to new techniques of farming,” he says.

GT: Was it challenging to engage the villagers?
“It definitely was,” he says, “It is hard to explain a technology that is so advanced to people who do not even know what a computer is. We had to convince them to attend at least one session so that they could understand how much of a difference it would make in their lives.” The ISRO programme has already covered more than 6000 villages and plans to spread its branches in every nook and cranny of India.

How the grass became greener

"Today bamboo is liberated," declared former environment minister Jairam Ramesh on April 27, 2011 - the day the tribals of Mendha Lekha, a small village in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, formally received the rights to harvest and sell bamboo.

Bamboo, until then, was considered a tree or timber and only the forest department had the rights to harvest it. The tribals had been dependant on the forest to earn their livelihood by harvesting honey, bamboo and tendu leaves (used for making beedis).

The forest officials did everything they could to keep bamboo under their control and the tribals on the other side, imagewere staking claim to its harvest and sale. After the villagers of Mendha claimed the surrounding forests for management, use and conservation under the Forest Rights Act 2006, they decided that the bamboo in this forest should be managed, developed and harvested by them instead of the paper mills or other contractors under lease from the forest department.

After years of struggle, it was finally time for good news. Last year in April, the government declared bamboo to be a form of grass. What this meant was that for the first time in India, tribal communities had a free hand in selling bamboo. It was now a Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP).

Other villages, which also have received similar rights under the Forest Rights Act, such as Marda, have not been so lucky - they still await their licenses.

We caught up with Neema Pathak, member of Kalpvriksha, a non-profit organisation that works on environmental and social issues in the area. Neema was on her way back from Gadchiroli when she spoke to us.

GT: What are the latest developments in Mendha Lekha?
Part of the purpose of this trip was to understand how the villagers are managing the bamboo harvest, sale and forests after receiving the rights. We saw that people were involved in payments, accounting and calculating profits of bamboo harvest in the open under a tree and in the presence of all involved. All this was being done in the Gram Sabha (every person living in a village who is listed as a voter is a member of the Gram Sabha and can take part in its decision making). We also saw detailed rules, regulations and systems that they have put in place for proper harvesting of bamboo.

GT: Has anything been done in particular to protect the wildlife?
The harvest rules include “not harming wildlife and their habitats”. Gram Sabha is also discussing how to ensure long term conservation. Various proposals are on the anvil. For instance, 10 per cent of the total area must be kept aside for wildlife. Another proposal was that certain areas in each compartment (the entire bamboo forest is divided into three compartments currently) must be reserved for wildlife. Yet another option could be to study which areas in every compartment are predominantly inhabited by wild animals. But no concrete decision has been made yet.

GT: Last year Mendha Lekha villagers were granted their licenses, but those in Marda are still waiting for theirs?
Yes, and it is not just Marda, many other villages, too have not been granted transit passes. We do not know the cause for the delay.

On Neema’s suggestion, we spoke to TSK Reddy, Chief Conservator of Forests, Gadchiroli. We asked him why the applications for the licenses in Marda have still not been processed. “We have already accepted the applications but they need to be verified and that takes time,” he claims.

Perseverance and persuasion paid off in the case of Mendha Lekha and its villagers. There is visible progress in the harvest and sale of bamboo, which is benefitting the locals. Let us hope 2012 witnesses the replication of Mendha Lekha in many other villages of India.

‘We can save the Ganga’

gangaLet us be honest. How many of us are actually interested in conservation of water bodies? We are all aware of the sorry state our rivers are in. Ever so often, we hear of local restoration efforts but are we ever motivated enough to participate?

We bet you will be after reading this.

Meet Dr Tej Razdan, a medical surgeon by profession and an environment enthusiast by nature. “The lakes of Udaipur have been plagued for many years. I and my fellow members at the Jheel Sanrakshan Samiti (JSS), a lake conservation society, have been motivating the locals to participate in the cleaning of these lakes for the past 30 years,” he told GT.

tej razdenSo what was special about 2011? It was the year JSS successfully ‘green bridged’ the local which used to be “a river for two months and a sewage canal for the rest”, says Dr Razdan. The name of Ahar brings about a visible change in Dr Razdan’s otherwise suave and self-contained demeanor. He obviously has a story to tell. “Ahar receives 100-150 Million Litres per day (MLD) of domestic and industrial wastewater and meets Udaisagar Lake, the final recipient of the polluted water of the entire city,” he informs.

“Udaipur does not have a Sewage Treatment Plant (STP). So the untreated wastewater was going into the water bodies, completely destroying the ecological and biological health of the lakes,” Dr Razdan tells us.

But this practice is now a thing of the past.

Bhimnagar’s Wonder Woman

Bhimnagar, a dusty little village in one of the remotest corners of Uttar Pradesh's Bundelkhand region is waking up to a new revolution - the revolution of sanitation. And the force behind this change is 65-year-old Mula Devi.

Parmarth Samaj Seva Sansthan (PSSS), a non government organisation ventured into the village a few years ago to create awareness and uplift the living conditions of the locals. At that time, sanitation was not even a matter of priority and women were too embarrassed to be vocal about it. With no toilets in the drought-hit region, they had no choice but to wait until nightfall for their ablation activities.

Perceiving their plight, Mula Devi, a respected elderly, stepped forward. She organised a self help group of women who donated a nominal amount of Rs 12 every month for toilets to be constructed under the ‘Sampoorna Swastha Abhiyaan’. She personally supervised the construction and today, the village boasts of a toilet at every corner and the promise of a cleaner and safer home.


JSS initiated the now successful restoration project by roping in Shristi Eco Research Institute (SERI), Pune, as its technology partner. The innovative ‘green bridge’ technology was used to save the dying river. “We wanted to revive the water body through ecological application, biological or natural treatment only,” Dr Razdan says, “We did a lot of research and got a lot of support from all quarters – the government, other NGOs, industrialists, as well as the locals.”

In other words, Dr Razdan and his eco-troop managed to mobilise the entire society.

What is the green bridge technology?
Based on filtration, biodegradation and biosorption mechanisms by microbes and plants, this innovative approach has been developed by SERI. It is a combination of Ecofert, an active microbial consortia, biomats (mats made of coconut coir), sand, gravels and plants.

The bridges are designed to tackle the hydraulic and organic load. The stones and boulders act as a filtering material and prevent solids from passing through the bridges. The green plants grown at the shore of the water body also contribute towards the treatment of the wastewater.

The role of the villagers
JSS has built six such bridges within a span of four months. “We are now working towards imparting knowledge to the locals. The villagers have to be the custodians of the infrastructure we have put in place,” he says.

The success story
“Our efforts have received appreciation from the centre as well as other state governments. The Punjab Chief Minister and his team watched a film I had made on our restoration project. Now he has allotted a large sum of money to implement the same in Budha Nala in Jalandhar. I believe authorities in Agra and Aligarh have also initiated similar movements,” declares Dr Razdan.

He is proud of the work of his team. And so are we.





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Those who made a difference in the year just gone by