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Shyamal Banerjee/Mint
Shyamal Banerjee/Mint

On Earth Day, pause, pay back

It is a good time to pause in our endless consumption cycle and reflect on how to give back

A few kilometres from my home, farmers of Greater Noida are planning to strip down to their underwear during the prime minister’s expected visit to the Delhi suburb next month. The farmers are demanding higher compensation for land acquired by the government. Last week, villagers in Karnataka’s Chitradurg district protested against the government giving away their pasture land to various defence organisations without their consent. The morning I write this column, there’s a news item about a conman selling land near Alwar that actually belonged to the Rajasthan government.

All this made me shake my head and think of how so much of the world is engaged in a tussle to claim their bit of mother earth. It’s an unequal relationship, as is any mother-child one. More so in this case, where the children, like characters in badly scripted soaps, are greedy and thoughtless, grabbing way more from the mother than they are willing to return.

The coming Monday, 22 April, is Earth Day. As consumers, it is a good time to pause in our endless consumption cycle and reflect on how we can give back, or at least stop the abuse, within our own homes and communities. You might get some ideas from here:

1) The Earth Day Network, based in Kolkatta, launched a “Bags for Earth" campaign. They brought a bunch of seamstresses to a venue with their sewing machines. Families were invited over a weekend to bring in their old sarees, T-shirts, old curtains, bed sheets etc. and the tailors converted them into cloth bags on the spot for free. Several reusable cloth bags were produced as a green alternative to plastic bags.

2) Sometimes schools don’t ply buses in some areas or parents find it convenient to drop the child by car. To encourage students who use private cars from the same locality to travel together to and from school, the same organisation began a campaign called ‘Backseat Buddies.’ Travelling together was positioned as more fun for the kids while cutting down on carbon pollution, saving precious petrol and alleviating the severe traffic congestion. School managements were roped in to give the programme a push.

3) Think about what you are consuming, beginning on Earth Day. Ask yourself if you really need that product, how long will it be of value to you and how you would dispose of its packaging. Ration unnecessary junk that we modern-day parents tend to keep buying--yet another sketch pen set, one more pencil box, another Hot Wheels car, a chips packet just because you don’t have change at the grocery store and so on. I am grappling with this myself and it is a slow, but rewarding endeavour to scale down the unnecessary. The first significant step I took towards it was last year when I gave a potted flowering plant in a pretty,painted clay pot as a return gift for my children’s birthday, instead of plastic baubles, toys and stationary that kids have in surplus. Older children happily connected with the thought, a few small ones were bewildered and one little boy asked me outright why I didn’t give something ‘nicer’. But it is enriching to rethink our usual patterns of consumption and break out of the rut.

4) Bhargavi Rao, environmental activist and trustee of the vigilant Bangalore NGO Environment Support Group, sent me a long list when I asked her for earth-friendly ideas that the urban middle class can adopt. Here are just a few:

a) Making walking, cycling and taking public transport cool by wearing T shirts and getting teenagers in the building to make banners promoting sustainable transport.

b) Use alternatives to detergents and cleaning chemicals: for example: soapnut powder, ash etc. are organic cleaning agents that remove dirt from dishes and don’t pollute water bodies.

c) Hand-wash clothes when few and sun dry them

d) Switch to steel, copper, iron and other traditional vessels and pans. Stop using plastic for it can release a variety of toxins, causing severe health problems.

e) When gifting, promote local arts and crafts by buying things that are handmade and have consumed minimal resources.

f) Compost in your kitchen. (Google to see how,) Use it in your kitchen garden or even in the few pots that you have in your apartment for good organic manure.

It has been established in several studies that the urban middle class, such as readers of this newspaper, is the demographic which consumes a disproportionate amount of the earth’s resources. That’s why the onus is on us to pay back. It should be easy, because since ancient times we have always known how to respect the earth. The Atharvaveda has 63 verses called Prithvi Sukta or hymn to the earth. A beautiful morning prayer (Samudra vasane devi…) says “O mother earth who wears the oceans and mountains on herself, forgive me for placing my feet on you as I go about the day." Observe a Bharatnatyam dancer paying obeisance to the earth before beginning her dance to apologise to the earth goddess in advance for stomping upon her. We only need to imbibe the thought embedded in that tradition.

Vandana Vasudevan is a Delhi-based writer on urban consumer and civic experiences. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

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