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Living at Whose Cost?

When we create a high carbon footprint and cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions, we are doing a disfavour to the environment.

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It may sound absurd to ask anyone, at whose cost are you living. Of course they will say it’s at their own cost or the children may say they are living on their parent’s earnings. The very thought that one has to live at other’s costs is not taken as an honourable position.

It is not the cost of living we need to observe, which is commonly discussed everywhere from the family dining table to annual city surveys by agencies. What we need to look into deeply is at whose cost are we living, which many of us may assume to be a simple question. The car buyer is doing so at the cost of her bank balance, the alcoholic is drinking at the cost of his health and short-tempered people continue to get angry at the cost of their public relations. Many more examples can follow, all suggesting the personal costs.

Beyond living at the cost of ourselves, we also live at the cost of the society. The sleeper class train ticket recovers only half the expenditure from the traveller. The actual investment on power and water is not charged to users. Subsidies have dominated farming sector, to help the poor farmers who cannot pay actual costs.

Ecological damage

The savings achieved by the salaried and many self-employed people happens at the cost of the informal sector, who are made to take home meagre money for the same number of working hours as everyone else, a social disease we are perpetuating.

Beyond these two, living at the cost of ourselves and cost of society, there is one more happening increasingly nowadays. We are living at the cost of ecology, hence at the cost of human civilisation itself.

A high carbon footprint flight across the continent, stay in an energy guzzling luxury hotel and day-long conference in lavishly furnished air-conditioned banquets directly boosts greenhouse gas emissions, even if the theme could be on sustainability.

One family weekend spent in a hill resort eating in the fine-dine restaurant with cuisine from across the continents happens at the cost of earth resources, even if we have the money to pay the bills. Such cases are aplenty.

Are we not aware of all this, our direct contribution to climate change? Of course we are, yet we find it difficult not to do what we should not be doing. The challenge ahead of us is not living the way we do because we can pay the costs, but living without costing the Earth.

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Home composting is easy

The simplest system is to dig a pit, keep dumping the garbage into it, cover with thin film of dried leaves or soil and keep repeating it everyday.

28bgp-green_GTQ_28_1599681eHow do natural materials produced around us get disposed? The simple answer could be ‘by composting’. Incidentally, archaeologists have studied places occupied by human habitation millions of years ago by studying the decomposed waste matter left behind and discovered new knowledge about how people might have lived then!

Composting as a process refers to, in simple language, letting the material rot and reduce to powdery form, reduce its water content and effect shrinking of the volume of the material, all achieved through microbial breaking of the cellular structure by bacterial action. Nature anyway does it, but we can do it our way and benefit from it.

For those who have access to ground, the simplest system is to dig out a 2’x2’x2’ pit, keep dumping the garbage into it, cover with thin film of dried leaves or soil and keep repeating it everyday. Larger pits can also be used. It should be thoroughly mixed periodically and ensure no water flows into it. Some harmless fruit flies may fly over it, but ignore them or pour another layer of soil. Once this pit is full, dig another next to it. By the time the second pit gets full, the fist one may be ready with manure for use.

In Bangalore, an initiative called Daily Dump advices using Khamba system, a versatile idea applicable everywhere. It uses three earthen pots placed one over the other where we fill garbage in turn. Daily dump of waste is to be covered with dry layer of saw dust or paper or dry leaves or dry mud, with or with composting culture media. The culture media like coconut pith manure and mixes produced in laboratories ensure the bio garbage gets composted fast and properly. Anyway, as one pot gets filled up, it is kept down while the next pot is being filled such that periodic mixing produces the manure as the pots take turn to receive the garbage.

The composting process produces a blackish liquid called leech and slightly smelling carbon gas which can be reduced by periodic and proper turning the mix over. Mixing provides it with aeration and supply of oxygen. There could also be some heat within the compost pit, which does not affect us.

What matters is to get soft, powdery, granular humus mix as the end product that is a great example of recycling the waste. While plants anyway grow in any soil condition, the compost mix as an external addition creates a condition with moisture retention, air penetration, plant nutrients, effective drainage of rain water and reduced soil erosion. As such, the plant grows with healthy roots.

Setbacks are good

It was during the early years of town planning that setbacks were introduced to ensure fresh indoor air circulation, accommodate outdoor sanitary connections, and provide room for fire-fighting tasks.

11HAB-greensens_11_1454054eSustainable living demands an ecological approach far beyond mere saving in project money and construction materials; it requires saving every kind of earth resources like water, vegetation or minerals. In an urban context, land is scarce today which we cannot let go waste. In real terms, we cannot really save land, but save unwanted interventions there, hoping to reap some benefits thereupon.

Traditionally compound as a demarcation wall and unused leftover space next to it were not found in Indian settlements, wherein the space between buildings were generally open with people walking around there or provide for allied activities like cattle sheds and rain drainage. It was during the early years of town planning that setbacks were introduced to ensure the space around that would allow fresh indoor air circulation, accommodate outdoor sanitary connections, ensure access to fire fighting tasks and such others.

Nowadays leaving space around a building is a legal requirement in majority of cities. The local authorities and the neighbours can object if an owner leaves less than the officially stipulated width. Considering the benefits of setbacks, we need not question this rule, but unfortunately, this restrictive law does not provide ideas towards making good use of this land. All of the empty setback spaces left around in a city will together count for a large land parcel. Many city master plans do not allow continuous buildings where there are no setbacks at all or even semi-detached ones where two building share a common wall. Both of these development types save lot of side setback spaces.

Where side setbacks are unavoidable, we can at least avoid paving it or concreting it, letting rain water percolate to earth, supporting a few plants. The plinth protection or flagging concrete continues to be a standard specification in projects, which supposedly stops rainwater percolating close to the building foundation, minimizing the possibilities of shrinkage cracks. With the good quality of foundation concretes and the curing time they get, no unequal settlements happen in normal soil and concreting can be saved.

With a desire to build maximum interior space in a given space, many site owners tend to violate the building bye-laws, under the knowledge of the officials, leaving narrow setbacks like two ft. space. Such widths are of no use to anyone — for a person to walk, for a mason to build proper sanitary chambers or for letting in good air and light for neighbouring buildings. If we can keep them as per bye-laws at minimum three ft., not only one can walk but also have some hedge plants.

Alternatively, we can increase this space and with no additional costs of construction, gain many value-added advantages and space for general tasks. The mandatory setbacks, if well utilised, are like free bonuses.

Walking the Eco-Talk

Let us not use drinking water for washing cars and plastic cups for drinking tea, and let us reduce our carbon footprint.

As we are reading this 150th essay in the Green Sense weekly column, let us look into ourselves as typical middle class urban residents: what is our first response to an ecological problem? Studying the problem looking for a solution or individually jump into an action trying to eliminate the problem itself?

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The answer is obvious. Majority of us observe the issues, study the concerned matters, write notes, prepare reports, read them out, discuss in seminars and do many more such things. There would be dozens of policies and programmes towards solving the problem.

So, we become subject experts much before the problem actually gets blown into larger proportion. It all sounds very good, with no dearth of ideas.

So, are we on the path to save ourselves and the Earth? Unfortunately, no way!

We need to realise that however much we may talk about sustainability, our habits and actions just refuse to budge and change for the better. Contradictions abound us everywhere. When energy efficiency gets discussed in centrally air conditioned star hotels which consume humongous energy, we need to introspect how often we could have lived with natural air.

When petrol consumption gets discussed in high-powered committees, we need to check how many of us have come by buses. While urban drinking water is in crisis, it will be interesting to see if we have switched over from water wash to dry mopping of our private vehicles to save water.

Contradictions continue. There is urban solid waste everywhere, but we do not carry water bottles to stop using packaged mineral water.

When the tea time comes, the cup does not matter – be it steel or plastic. If we carry the traditional hand kerchief, we can save on paper napkins, but we do not.

Month after month, can we switch on less light, use less bathing water, buy less of manufactured materials and naturally get used to the idea of less? Can we live happily without carrying home all the unwanted free things we get in shops, meetings, events, business dealings and festivals? Theoretically it is possible, but most of us do not bother to live with less but want more of everything. How many of us take a stand, refuse packaged water or tea from a plastic cup, hoping that when more people similarly refuse, the trend may change?

Between the shining car and wasted drinking water, if we prefer shining car and do not feel guilty about it, do we deserve to talk about water conservation? If we are aware of climate change and carbon footprints, what are we doing to reduce our own carbon consumption?

Ecological crisis is a global problem, but rooted in individual consumption. It is time we all walk the talk of green sense and those who are already living green, talk the walk to inspire the rest of us.