Environmental issues in India – Part 1

Local architect and builder, and president of BEAM Peter Lockyer has taken on a project in the Punjab of India with some challenges, the construction of a “sustainable house” over the next 3 years, at 4 months each year. This straw bale house is in a rural village and comes at the invitation of a former Seymour resident Ravish Sran.

Some early observations in India’s north-west


If we think of global issues of climate change and survival on our planet without wiping out half of the remaining bio-diversity by 2050, then population is right up there. Speaking with friends here (who have 2 children) they have real concerns at what India will look like with 1.5billion mouths in 2050 (currently 1.2billion). 2050 looks like 10billion mouths worldwide. These are educated Indians with choices saying this. Most Indians have fewer choices- its hand to mouth in a daily grind within a rigid cultural dynamic.

Man sorting plastic bottles. Photo copyright Enrico Fabian.

Man sorting plastic bottles. Photo copyright Enrico Fabian. Source link.

Waste is a serious issue

Plastic has been a massive problem around the world, but few places more so than India. It blows around the streets, it builds up with other waste along road edges and in scrubland, and it chokes river systems. Cows roaming the streets eat rubbish, plastic and all (a problem for stomachs…just like fish ). Recent moves in Delhi and Agra have added strength to anti-plastic legislation (which has been in place for a few years with no obvious effect) with a 2,000 rupee fine (about $40) if caught using plastic bags. It’s a big fine for roadside stalls (where a daily income of just $5 is common)! However, police enforcement is absent in so many areas in India (a paper tiger?). Still, I bought fruit in both Delhi and Agra and given hand-made paper bags (ex-maths book pages…nice touch). That’s impressive. Beyond those 2 cities, its plastic as usual. Nothing as progressive in Punjab, but I am optimistic.

The problems are enormous, but India is a home to innovation, frugal innovation (jugaad). The Dalits (untouchable sub-class) can be seen everywhere collecting plastics, metals, glass in the streets for recycling. They are often children (which never get schooling). Mountains of plastic have people crawling over like ants, scrounging.

India is now a “dumping ground” for the west’s toxic wastes and e-waste. With little access to safety equipment, these are dismantled and reprocessed to return to feedstock for Indian industry. Dangerous work and partly Australia’s shame in exporting toxic waste, but India is at work.


The Jugaad – see this link for more images

Jugaad, and innovative India

The Peter Rehra, is an farm truck made from a standing diesel engine (Peter brand) and a simple chassis and steering gear. Registration is not required! Check out Peter Rehra on your Google. Indian innovation at its best, and what E.F. Schumacher recommended for India as Intermediate Technology (back in the 50s and 60s): simple machines that save backs but don’t create unemployment issues.

Climate Change

India is also facing climate change problems of a different nature to Seymour area. In my village it has been foggy here until 10am for the past weeks- its now mid-February but I am told the fog disappears from mid- January normally. Its very cold at night. This is not normal weather. No fires nor strong gusty wind storms, but a changing climate and more educated local people are talking about it. In an area where there is no native vegetation (this is a food basket that has been farming for 2,000 years) and many Spotted Gums, the impact on native vegetation and habitat is not a conversation like in Australia.

Building technology is still 19th century and earlier

Most domestic buildings in India are constructed of double brick walls (no insulation, no moisture-proofing) with flat concrete roofs. This is the same throughout the Middle East. Building insulation is totally absent, the very words are a source of interest. However, people are interested in the concept of insulation, and I have spotted one business in insulation.

Straw bale house in Punjab. This is the crux of my project here in a rural village in Punjab. We are going to build a straw bale house, with bamboo roof trusses and bamboo battens to support a tin roof, and plenty of insulation (whatever that may be at this point). This is a high profile project in the village- people are very interested, doubtful, and my host Ravish Sran eloquently promotes the issues wherever and whenever he can. He is a very forward thinking young man (a resident of Melbourne, formerly of Seymour). This is a farming village of wheat and rice, irrigated. The lushness and soil depth is unbelievable, to “die for” as one might say. So much water from canals (Himalaya ice melts) and subterranean from 200 feet (they work in feet here still, in a metric system otherwise). But Punjab/Rajasthan/Gujarat, etc, has a looming water supply problem from too much pumping. But I digress…. Back to the village. Rice straw is burnt as a waste product, so making building of rice bales gives some value-adding (wheat straw is valuable as chaff). I have seen balers, too.

About bricks. There are many brick chimneys scattered across Punjab and Rajasthan (and probably further, but I have yet to go there). I visited one brickworks this week (to buy bricks no less). They are impressive, run on coal, and have a lot of very dirty labourers who live on site with their families: a shanty town of (perhaps) indentured labour. I have asked whether children get any schooling. These are the poorest of workers. They DO have a job (no welfare in India to speak of- no work, no food), but get paid poorly. And when you are that poor, few children go to school because they are valuable as income earners for the families. This is similar to ragpickers and plastic collectors in the street. It is very challenging for an Australian visitor- India has very rich people, very poor people and a caste system(for Hindus) that makes it almost impossible to get a better life, climb the rungs of achievement…but that’s another story.

We bought the bricks. We will use them to demonstrate a brick cavity wall with insulation in the shed that precedes the straw bale house, and build a fence with integral flower beds, but my conscience is challenged. One small step at a time…

Stay tuned for Part 2 from Peter Lockyer…

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