At the urban condominium in Gurgaon where we live, our home composts our kitchen waste in pots and use the organic matter for the happy plants on our balconies; nothing organic goes to the garbage collector. I limit my needs, and the consumption of things; though I yet manage to consume heavily without trying. I am also occupied with farming organically and sustainably, with respect for the earth and my farming ancestors; aware of my responsibility to future generations, on 6 acres in Faridabad, Haryana. I am a bundle of contradictions.
The Gurgaon condo, happily, has some individuals aware of the mess of urban waste management, but most residents could not be bothered. Efforts are underway, led by a very sincere Jean Saldana, to segregate waste and compost it in-house instead of sending it to the urban dump at nearby Bandhwari.
But this is no longer enough for me, at the cusp of a paradigm shift in my understanding of the consequences of urban living. I must engage more with the world out there, and metaphorically climb the mountain of waste I see every day on route to Aman Bagh. Wasn’t that what the mountaineer said when asked why he wanted to climb the mountain? Just because the mountain is there.
The Cycle is Broken
Albert Howard’s An Agricultural Testament published in 1940 never ceases to amaze and delight me, decades after my first tentative reading. I deploy his arguments from a world that once was, but as you will see, it is increasingly real in India today. He was a genius, prescient no end. I start with his conclusion.
“The Industrial Revolution, by creating a new hunger – that of the machine – and a vast increase in the urban population, has encroached seriously on the world’s store of fertility. A rapid transfer of the soil’s capital is taking place. This expansion in manufacture and in population would have made little or no difference had the waste products of the factory and the town been faithfully returned to the land. But this has not been done. Instead, the first principle of agriculture has been disregarded : growth has been speeded up, but nothing has been done to accelerate decay. Farming has become unbalanced. The gap between the two halves of the wheel of life has been left unbridged, or it has been filled by a substitute in the shape of artificial manures. The soils of the world are either being worn out and left in ruins, or are being slowly poisoned. All over the world our capital is being squandered. The restoration and maintenance of soil fertility has become a universal problem.”
Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 1940. ‘Conclusions and Suggestions: A Final Survey”. Chapter XV, page 255.
Urban, educated and rich (a potent combination in unequal India) society’s sole focus on ever-increasing GDP growth and farm production mists over the ugly realities of the consuming post-industrial service economy; and the outcomes of urban living in India. The problem of urban waste under which our kasbas, towns and cities are drowning under has its roots in our total rejection of the agricultural life and the concomitant belief in urbanisation as a cure-all solution despite its terrible social, environmental and health costs. Listen, please, to Howard from 1940: growth has been speeded up, but nothing has been done to accelerate decay.
“Practically none of our urban waste finds its way back to the land. The wastes of the population, in most Western countries, are first diluted with large volumes of water and then after varying amounts of purification, are discharged either into rivers or into the sea. Beyond a little of the resulting sewage sludge the residues of the population are entirely lost to agriculture.”
“From the point of view of farming the towns have become parasites. They will last under the present system only as long as the earth’s fertility lasts. Then the whole fabric of our civilization must collapse.”
Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 1940. ‘Developments of the Indore Process. The Utilisation of Town Wastes’. Ch VIII, pg 125
The real issue: the towns have become parasites. How long will all the production be based in the villages, and the waste be generated in the cities? Why can we not see this linear trajectory of the missile that is urbanisation? Can we get together civic groups of concerned bureaucrats and citizens who realise the cause of this ocean of urban waste management lies in this fracture between town and village, factory and farm as it were, and that we must rebuild this connection?
“The present system of sewage disposal has been the growth of a hundred years; problem after problem has had to be solved as it arose from the sole point of view of what seemed best for the town at the moment; mother earth has had few or no representatives on municipal councils to plead her cause; the disposal of waste has always been looked upon as the sole business of the town rather than something which concerns the well-being of the nation as a whole.”
“The problem of getting the town wastes back in to the land is not difficult. The task of demonstrating a working alternative to water-borne sewage and getting it adopted in practice is, however, stupendous. At the moment it is altogether outside the bounds of practical politics. Some catastrophe, such as a universal shortage of food followed by famine, or the necessity of spreading the urban population about the countryside to safeguard it from direct and indirect damage by hostile aircraft, will have to be upon us before such a question can even be considered.”
Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 1940. ‘Developments of the Indore Process. The Utilisation of Town Wastes’. Ch. VIII, pg. 127
Enough said ! Lets do, and do it now. I know there is no substitute to implementing.
Over the past 2 years, I have been taking tonnes of dried leaf material from Leisure Valley Park near my Gurgaon Condo for using as mulch at Aman Bagh. I met up with the helpful Manish Sejwal who works for a NGO that manages the RGEP next door, and have his renewed commitment to help collect this. Often, over these years, I also carried similar bags from my Gurgaon condo. Once in a week to ten days, we are able to carry 10 bags (125 kg) of this ‘waste’ and spread it around happy trees at Aman Bagh to protect the soil microorganisms, for enhancing water retention, and for building organic nutrition. Over this period, then, we must have kept about 8 metric tonnes of leaf waste out of the landfill and used it to build our soil. To expand this collection, I recently spoke to the horticulture head at Faridabad Municipality – and met a stone wall of ignorance and indifference. Doesn’t he know? “We have installed a 35 Lakh rupee machine at our park, and we plan to compost our material there …”. Nevertheless, I yet have 10 bags of leaf waste a week available – that is the carbon and cellulose. We will get to the city municipalities sometime. नया ज़माना आएगा, नया सवेरा आएगा
I really like organic retailer I Say Organic and its brother-sister founder pair Ashmeet and Aakansha Kapoor. Fundamentally, organic retailers are as much a part of the consumer project and the urban problem as we all are …. nevertheless, it does feel like organic commerce in a callous ‘bad’ consuming world is a positive step. It does look like just another consumer product, and I worry about that.
We spoke about the green and nitrogen and micronutrients rich organic waste they generate daily and monthly – tonnes of vegetables, fruits, dal milling remnants and so forth. Representative of the broken cycle of growth (at the farm, where nothing organic is ‘waste’) and decay (in the city, where it is only ‘waste’), it worries. With Ashmeet’s involvement, could we bring this waste to my farm and compost it using Howard’s Indore method and complete the cycle? I can do this practically as their waste is certified organic, couldn’t if it was from a regular mandi where chemically poisoned food abounds – it sounded right. Their warehouse though is 30 kilometers from Aman Bagh, and this would add more fossil fuel pollution to the already most-polluted-in-the-world air in Delhi, and add more costs to my already hugely subsidised farm. The debate continues, as do the actions. We got the first lot last week, and the first bed of 160 kg of compost was laid with this green waste, and dry leaves from Leisure Valley.
I also received 50 kg of dal milling ‘waste’ – its wonderful, organically grown moong and arhar (toor) remnants, and will go to feed our cattle. On this visit, this unexpected bonus will pay for the Jeep’s fuel.
We’ve started on a path that will make the soil happier. The urban waste comes back to the village soil; making the circle complete, triangulating the urban disasters of Gurgaon, Delhi and Faridabad. I love doing Something That Matters in the jumble of messy contradictions that is life.
“There is therefore a distinct saving when humus is used. This, however, is only a minor item on the credit side. The texture of the soil is rapidly improving, soil fertility is being built up, the need for chemical manures and poison sprays to control pests is becoming less.”
Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, 1940. ‘Developments of the Indore Process. The Utilisation of Town Wastes’. Ch. VIII, pg. 130