We were like that only

The traditional Indian life was beautifully in sync with the environment. We lost it to plastic bags and thermocol plates

This column was first published on 8 June 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

A few Sundays ago there was a story in the Sunday Timesof India that a group of environmentally conscious Dutch people was trying to stem the culture of use and throw by opening up Repair Cafes across the Netherlands. Anyone who had a household appliance to repair, or a dress that needed a bit of darning, had to saunter in to the café where amid coffee and cookies, a few volunteers who like to fix things would do it for them, free of cost. The Repair Café even has a grant from the Dutch government. At its core is the idea of a sustainable lifestyle where things are recycled and repaired rather than thrown away and new ones bought in an endless loop of consumption.

People who read that story would have clucked their tongues and smiled, like I did. Indians are the original kings of repair and reuse. Our cramped bazaars are full of fixers of absolutely any electronic item. Their visiting cards will claim to repair anything ranging from hair dryers to DVD players and of course mobile handsets. And anyway, if they don’t know how to do it, they will learn by experimenting with your gadget. Without even realizing the benefits to the planet, Indians have always been repairing things and reusing them.

The profusion of repair shops that still exist show that we’ve managed to retain that. Thank God. Because there are other sustainable ways of living that were seamlessly woven into Indian life that we’ve managed to forget.

One was the use of cloth bags for shopping, as I mentioned in the last column. The customer would set off from home, cloth bag swinging on his arm. Taking your own bag ensured that consumption itself was scaled down because the customer would buy only as much as the bag could hold. I am guessing it was in sync with the whole ethos of thrift and restraint prevalent a couple of generations ago. If someone didn’t have a bag, the shop would provide a cloth bag and that would be reused till it tore. How did that habit end, I wonder. Somewhere in the late seventies and eighties, plastic bags made an appearance and now we struggle to extricate ourselves from the mess by passing various laws.

Another aspect of the erstwhile green Indian life was the practice of using disposable plates made from leaves. In an organic spice plantation farm in Goa recently, we were served wholesome Saraswat food in beautiful, sturdy plates made of dried betel leaves stitched together. One can wash and reuse them. My husband recalls his grandmother making instant plates using the leaves of the badam tree. A guest would pop in for a meal suddenly, as would happen those days, and she would take a few dried leaves stocked in the kitchen, deftly use a few twigs to hold them together, and voila, a nice biodegradable plate was ready. The banana leaf served as a plate for every meal in south Indian homes, for generations. Eat and throw it to the cows for them to chew on and then use cow dung as fuel. A perfect cycle of returning to the earth what you got from it. Now, designers and architects have a fancy term for this—cradle to cradle design philosophy, or things should be built so that they can be taken apart and the raw materials reused. The banana leaf plate and the donna, or leaf cup, are still used, but only in temples or in roadside stalls. It has gone out of use in the daily life of middle class homes, which is a pity because you can’t get more environmentally cleaner than that.

R.D. Raj, proprietor of Annapoorna Cottage Industries in Hyderabad, has developed an indigenous technology to manufacture leaf plates and cups. A simple pedal-operated machine, using low power, can fold, trim, press and shape about 300 plates per hour. The plates fashioned by the machine are sturdier and have a better finish than the hand made ones by rural craftsmen. Raj’s customers are NGOs who train tribals and local people of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa on the machine to make plates using the leaves procured from the abundant forests in the region. His end users are temples and railway canteens in small towns.

The proprietor of M/s Kishore Tulsidas of www.leafplates.com, whose family has been in the business of making leaf plates for 75 years, tells me on phone from Mumbai that previously his products were bought by many hotels in the city, but slowly over the years, demand has dwindled from them and his main customers are people conducting religious functions. “The hotels started to buy paper and thermocol and gave up leaf plates. They want something white and bright, I guess. Only 10% of my hotel customers remain now." he says. Isn’t there a rise in demand with the growing environment consciousness? Apparently not. “Even educated people want only thermocol and paper," he says.

You can’t go wrong on the trendiness scale if you’re environment-conscious. So why don’t hotels and restaurants use a bit of imagination and offer leaf plates and cups and, of course, go to town about how green they are? As individual customers, we can go green on this front, quite easily. During picnics and birthday parties, instead of those offending Styrofoam, plastic and paper disposables, we could switch to natural, bio degradable, fully recyclable eating ware. It will add character to the occasion, the kids will think it’s cool (because they are more earth aware than us) and Mother Earth will bless us. In the week of World Environment Day, it’s worth remembering that we are citizens first and consumers next.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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