My Life as an Environmentalist, 2003
Mrs Almitra H Patel, 50 Kothnur, Bagalur Rd, Bangalore 560077. Member, Supreme Court committee for Solid Waste Mgt.

I was born 67 years ago in Bombay to Pheroze and Tehmina Sidhwa, in a large joint family home, but grew up in Devlali, near Nasik, where our house right at the edge of town and my father’s love of trees, gave me my lifelong love of nature. We used to go on long evening walks into the fields, and sit on our favourite stones to watch the sunset beyond the hills. Barnes High School, where I studied from KG to Senior Cambridge, was a huge campus on a plateau with an all-around view of the Sahyadri hills, visible beyond the military cantonment’s vast firing range. I had a friendly aunt who loved to show me the mysteries of caterpillars turning into butterflies, and explain the secrets of anthills and beehives and wasp nests and the lives of birds and little mammals.

At Pune’s Wadia College, during my second year of college, my zoology instructor allowed me to help him with his Ph D experiments on colour vision in the giant rock bees that lived in the University tower. They were trained to come to increasingly dilute drops of sugar water placed on squares of different colours under glass, each colour diluted with different amounts of black or of white, mixed with other squares of black, white and grey. On test days, using only plain water drops on each square, we would count how many came directly to squares that had any colour at all. When trained for blue, they would instantly find even the palest blue squares, but when we trained and tested for red, they would go to any square of grey as well, hunting for the sugar syrup, so we knew they could not see red at all. Dr Shah also let me help him with dissecting insects and plant parts for staining them to study their cell structure.

I did my B Sc with Chemistry and Botany (one had a very limited choice of combinations in the fifties) but my parents felt there was no future in those days for biology studies. (Till the sixties, hardly anyone knew the meaning of the word ecology). Since they had started 3-4 Swaraj industries from 1922 (to make India independent of British imports), they felt an engineering degree would be more useful for me. So I went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology in USA) for 3 years, to get a B.S. in general engineering (all subjects, which proved very useful for me later) and an M.S. in industrial ceramics. Two years after my return, I met and married Hoshang, a Chemical and Metallurgical Engineer and had two daughters. As we lived with my in-laws, I was able to keep working for 31 years, heading a small family business and developing an import substitute for induction furnace linings for melting iron and steel. What I enjoyed most was providing technical help to customers to reduce waste and improve productivity. Thanks to Hoshang’s encouragement, I gave lectures every year to the Institute of Indian Foundrymen and wrote a Trouble-Shooting manual for induction furnace users, translated by a Swedish firm into 5 languages for use in 80 countries.

Since I was my own boss, I also worked part-time as honorary Project Officer for the Bombay Natural History Society from 1969-71, helping scientists from BNHS and the Smithsonian Institution of USA who were trying to save the habitat of the Gir lions in Saurashtra. That was a very happy and useful time. Toby Hodd of UK compared the impact of grazing by wild and domestic herbivores on the grasses of Gir. His studies proved extremely useful for all who try to use nature to restore forests. He found that in India, 90% of plant growth occurs only in our 4 monsoon months. So he developed a model of Rotational Grazing in which both cattle, goats, humans were kept off one plot during rains, then only humans were allowed onto the plot to cut fodder grass during 4 winter months. Only in the 4 summer months, when the ground was hard enough to resist compaction by animals’ hooves and the young sapling stems were strong enough to withstand trampling, were domestic animals allowed onto the plot to graze what was left. The results were really fantastic, even in the first year. Compared to an unprotected plot with year-round grazing and cutting, grass grew 6 ft tall vs 6 inches, soil porosity and water-holding increased by six times, tree-seedling germination success was many times more, and the grasses preferred by animals increased compared to the weeds, because they had had a chance to put out seeds before being eaten. The next year, another one out of three plots would be protected, in rotation.

Sadly, I had to leave the Gir Project before it ended, because we moved in 1972 to Bangalore with our two little girls. Instead of living in town, we bought a farm four villages outside the city, because we love nature and country life, and started poultry farming with upto 50,000 birds, until last year. I continued managing the family business with week-a-month visits to the factory near Bombay and customer visits from Bangalore. In 1991 we sold this highly technical business to our Factory Manager and Sales Manager on instalment payments, and they are doing very well still. So I was free to pursue new interests, like helping various environment groups with funds and expertise, and trying to save the 1800 BC Iron-Age megaliths (pandavara-gudi) in Kannur near my village. My efforts and finds were shown by Surabhi, and in WEEK magazine of 16th January 1994. As a result, I was for 2 years the Convener for Bangalore of INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage.

After retirement, I also decided to do something about our village environment. Frogs sang in the twilight on our scenic country road until 1991, when Bangalore City Corporation began daily dumping truckloads of city garbage on both sides of the road and into the marshes and stream banks “because there is nowhere else to dump it”. Till that time, like most city folk, I never knew or thought about where city garbage ended up, or how. I was determined not to take a NIMBY attitude (“Not In My Back Yard”) and have it dumped somewhere else, because that would simply mean that some other farmers would suffer, as we did, from the huge packs of street dogs that fed and multiplied on garbage. Without the need of a human touch to survive, they turned feral (back to their wild ways) and formed hunting packs at night that attacked many farms, including our poultry and sheep and pets.

It is because of this problem of no ownership and social contact with humans, that animal lovers’ efforts to sterilise and release such feral strays back onto city streets does not protect us from being chased and bitten while walking, jogging or riding two-wheelers. School-children are the worst sufferers, either on foot or by falling off pillions as two-wheeler pillions try to avoid a chasing pack. Painful and costly anti-rabies shots are a must, because it is impossible to punctually catch and vaccinate every street dog every year as required, and we cannot take chances with such a fatal disease. That is why the false sentiments of a few are so dangerous for others : those who put out food for stray dogs, which can thus survive outside a loving home even without garbage on the streets, are encouraging a deadly menace to fellow-humans without personal responsibility .

So, if I wanted to avoid a NIMBY attitude to the garbage in my beautiful countryside, I had to find a solution. One way was to help the BCC officers find suitable disposal sites by chasing their files through the Govt system: from AC to DC to Special DC to Divisional Commissioner Revenue to Revenue Secretary and even Principal Secretary. It took, believe it or not, 2 1/2 years to get six sites officially Notified for such use. Another solution was to find hygienic ways of managing city waste, which I found in Bombay. Excel Industries there had developed bio-cultures of natural microbes from cowdung, wood-rot fungi and soil, during a municipal sweepers’ strike, to speed up composting of waste and control odours. They sprayed these on long heaps of waste called “wind-rows”, turning them weekly to provide enough air for odourless decomposition without producing leachate. The garbage turned into compost : dark-brown and crumbly with a smell like earth in sudden rain, full of all the “good” microbes and soil nourishment (nutrients and micro-nutrients) that plants need to grow well. A tomato drying in the sun is nuisance-free. If it rots without air in a plastic bag, it turns into a foul-smelling liquid. Similarly garbage left to rot in an unturned heap, especially during rains, produces a highly-polluting coffee-coloured “leachate” that enters the soil and groundwater and makes it unfit to drink or use.

Capt J S Velu of Exnora who had come to work in Bangalore showed me a third solution, popular in Chennai: citizens got together and decided that the best way to keep streets clean was not to dirty them in the first place. They pooled monthly funds to hire a rag-picker, renamed Street Beautifier, for door-to-door collection of their “wet” food waste, giving their “dry” recyclable waste separately, unmixed, and removed all of their street-bins which were really nuisance-points.

In 1994, I was selected as “Environmentalist of the Year for Karnataka” by the Economic Times. Meanwhile, the plague struck filthy Surat in September 1994, when rats came out of garbage-clogged storm-drains during floods. Two weeks later, in our family Maruti van covered with banners and eco-messages, I joined Capt Velu and a friend on the first of two Clean India Campaigns to carry the message of hygienic waste management to 30 municipalities in 30 days: daily door-step collection of wet waste for composting. We spent 5 days in Surat on our way to Delhi and returned via Nagpur-Hyderabad. On the way, we learnt as much as we were teaching and sharing. We found door-to-door schemes that had evolved naturally in many cities.
We found 4-bucket hand-carts in use so that waste could be “handled once only” without manual handling later : from home kitchen-bin into hand-cart bucket into tipper-lorry for unloading at the destination. We saw members of SEWA (Self Employed Womens Association) in Ahmedabad paying regular weekly visits to apartment blocks to collect their dry waste for free. We saw many places and persons doing home-composting in flower-pots or flowerbeds using plastics-free food wastes, or doing vermiculture where earthworms eat the decomposed waste and deposit it on the surface as useful vermi-castings.

But worst of all, we found that not just Bangalore but almost all the cities of India had nowhere to dump their waste except all over the outskirts and approach roads. At an INTACH workshop on Fragile Ecosystems which are “most disturbed by human activity” like our “peri-urban areas” (around cities), two ladies fighting since 10 years through the Supreme Court to preserve Dahanu’s eco-sensitive ecology urged me to file a PIL too, a Public Interest Litigation for hygienic solid waste management (SWM). So I did, under WP888/96 against every State and Union Territory, the Govt of India and the Central Pollution Control Board and 10 worst cities. To show that I was not just “anti” something but wanted constructive solutions, I also included the four best cities (including Surat, once the filthiest but today India’s cleanest city thanks to Padmashri S R Rao’s 18 months of leadership as Municipal Commissioner, which shows that one can do anything if one decides to. He believes that a city is only as clean as its filthiest areas, so he began by cleaning the slums, which all over India cooperate the most wonderfully if given a chance). I asked the Court to order that India’s 300 cities of population over 100,000 should follow Planning Commission guidelines for SWM.

Once in the Supreme Court, I realised that anything I submitted was automatically sent to all 41 of my Respondents. So I asked them for data : which cities had disposal sites, were they big enough, how long would they last, how were they managed etc. Suddenly, the top city officials who till now thought rubbish was a subject only for lower officials to deal with, had to give these answers to the Court and pay attention to the subject. More than anything else, this has been the biggest positive outcome of my case, and though results are not spectacular, at least cities are thinking about ways to solve the problem, so benefits will follow.

In Jan 1998 the Supreme Court formed a Committee to give them a Report on Solid Waste Management for Class 1 Cities. I gave the names of India’s best “navaratna” Commissioners. The Govt included me too, so I could share my knowledge of good and bad practices in the many many cities I have visited during our Clean India Campaigns and after, 97 so far (upto March 2003). Our Chairman was Asim Barman, the Commissioner of Calcutta who started doorstep collection with 80% cooperation from residents, using his existing staff and equipment at no extra charge. Calcutta’s street bins were removed and the city is visibly cleaner than before. Once our Interim Report was ready in 6 months, we presented it to 400 city officials at 4 regional workshops and included their comments in our Final Report of March 1999. This was like a mini-Referendum, something our country sadly lacks for capturing the opinion of knowledgeable persons.
The Court sent our Final Report to all States for their cities’ feedback -- a second “Referendum”. The Report, written by city managers for city managers, was widely approved, so in Feb. 2002 the Court directed all “statutory authorities … to endeavour to comply with the suggestions and recommendations of the Asim Barman Committee”.

Meanwhile, since a Report is not a law and there is no compulsion to follow it, the Central Pollution Control Board had prepared draft Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules after discussions with our Committee. The Court ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forests to publish the Draft Rules for public comment, and so automatically, a year later in September 2000, India and its city managers for the first time in its history had clear MSW Rules to follow while handling city wastes. This also puts power in the hands of city residents: they can demand that their cities follow. In fact, the Supreme Court has declared that it intends to refer my PIL to every High Court for monitoring compliance with the MSW Rules, and the High Courts have to report progress to the Supreme Court periodically. This will empower citizens, through an “Amicus” or “friend of the Court” lawyer, to demand good performance from those who run their cities.

Because I was doing this for no personal gain, and throughout the case took an enabling, helpful and supportive attitude rather than an adversarial one of blaming others for the mess we are in, I received tremendous support from the Court for my efforts. The judges could almost read my mind, and granted my step-by-step requests almost as I asked for them. I also, to my surprise, received thanks and friendship from all the Respondents who had to do a lot of homework before coming to the Court to answer the queries I had posed. So many leading lawyers have helped me, one after the other, all for free, though of course the case has been a huge personal expense for me and my very supportive family for over seven years now. Travel was the major expense, then communications, so I used to get air tickets as birthday presents from family and friends. (Supreme Court hearing dates are really finalised only a couple of days beforehand, so rail travel is almost impossible). Although there are huge sums of money available from many aid agencies, it takes about 60% of any NGO’s productive time preparing projects and reports just to get these funds. Also, since I was an individual working on an all-India basis, in an unusual policy-making field of work, I did not fit any of their rigid criteria for organisations, geographic areas and topics of work etc. Never mind, it has been a hugely satisfying experience. I am proud to be a citizen of a country where a single individual, with clarity, knowledge and perseverance, can make such a difference with the help of the Courts.

Indian soils are sadly lacking in organic matter which can retain moisture to drought-proof our crops, and restore soil vitality and fertility. It is estimated that each year India needs 6 million tons more of organic manures than we now use.

The composted waste of just our 41 largest cities of over 1 million population can more than meet this need. It is hard to imagine a more beneficial win-win solution than the use of city compost in farmlands and orchards within 50-100 km of a city, for improving urban hygiene and rural prosperity. Adopting Integrated Plant Nutrient Management, called IPNM, which is the combined use of organic manures or city compost with chemical fertilizers for optimum results, will generate enormous national savings. Yet all of the 20-odd city compost plants set up today find it difficult to sell their product in the absence of any Govt encouragement.

This is because of the enormous fertiliser subsidies of almost Rs 14,000 crore, each year! Farmers find urea cheap and easy to use, though they know its unbalanced use destroys their soil fertility in a few years. 11.6 million hectares of India’s soil has turned saline or alkaline and lost annual productivity worth Rs 100–300 crore through unbalanced use of fertilizers, over-watering and progressive depletion of nutrients and micro-nutrients. We have a total of 21.7 million hectares of both natural and man-made barren fields in India, awaiting rescue. Yet we have seen how much resistance there was in the February 2003 budget to reducing the fertiliser subsidy by a mere 0.5%, merely because politicians want quick popularity. A one-time capital cost of Rs 1700 crores can provide compost plants for the waste of all our 41 Class 1 cities. This is just 12% of only one year’s fertilizer subsidies and concessions, and definitely a cost-effective investment. So through the Court I am seeking a Task Force and Action Plan, from the Ministries of Agriculture and of Fertilisers, to promote IPNM for this coming season.

A visit to a compost plant shows that though thin-film plastic waste may be only 2-5% by weight of the total waste, by volume it exceeds the volume of compost produced. So mixed wastes cannot be effectively composted at rates affordable to farmers. That is why it is so important to keep “dry” wastes out of “wet” wastes. Citizens who do this can be proud of their own important role in making compost affordable, reducing rural poverty and drought-proofing India’s agriculture.

Plastics will not find their way into the waste if there is a market and decent price for them. That is why I regularly visit as many cities as I can, on my own, sharing my experience and advice on simple cost-effective solutions that require better management, not more money, and trying to find good recycling practices such as the use of shredded plastic in tar roads which improves their life by 200-300%. So the last orders I will seek from the Court will be for Waste Minimisation and Eco-friendly Packaging Rules which exist in so many other countries round the world to reduce wastes like PET bottles. After that, once the case is sent to all the High Courts, the real field work will begin, a “missionary” phase of ensuring compliance with both Report and Rules, of spreading information about "Best Practices" from city to city, and of addressing major policy issues as they arise from time to time.

This is a task for every one of us, as Article 51 A of our Constitution says that “it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture, to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and have compassion for living creatures.”