Think - Eat - Save

Think Eat Save is the theme of this year's Environment day. Many of us often brush aside the warnings  environmentalists send our way. We often feel it does not concern us as we have plenty of everything and are quite comfortable wasting water and food, using plastic bags and so on. I urge you to read this week's Tehelka magazine. It should move you out of the comfort zone in which you live and should really be an eye opener. We have to stop living in a fool's paradise, believing that the money we worship will keep us safe from all the horrors that the green brigade wants us to accept.

The article begins with these words: From farm to plate, we waste 30-50% of our food even as every seventh person on earth goes hungry. With the 7 billion global population poised to grow by nearly one-third by 2075, we could rethink food or starve. The choice is now! There are one billion hungry people in the world. Quite shameful for a civilisation that I presume wants to be remembered for all the larger than life inventions that have come our way be it flying in the air, conquering space, or I guess one can say trying to compete with the Gods. On the way we had to sacrifice values like compassion and empathy to the alter of success. We can pass by beggar children without batting an eye lid, without wondering why these children are denied their rights or why people should chose to live under bridges, their meagre belongings in bundles. Have you ever watched these beggar families tending to their morning chores. I have more than once as I pass them every morning on my sway to work. Some are brushing their teeth with dirty tooth brushes, women are lighting their stoves made of a few bricks and some wood, others are already slapping their chapatis (bread) on the heated griddle. Some are still asleep. Last week I was touched beyond words when I saw a little boy, probably 3 years old washing two decrepit soft toys with a tiny bit of soap and a small can of water. A few weeks back I saw a young woman wrapped in a thin sari bathing on the main road. Her daughter was helping her and scrubbing her back while the woman tried to make sure that her sari did not slip and reveal her body and maintain the shreds of her dignity. It was I who felt ashamed as I and all of us were in some way responsible for her plight.

Have you ever asked yourself how the poor survive in your city. The kind of homes they live in. How they earn their daily bread. I will answer you in one word: with dignity, dignity and a smile. Their houses or what goes by that name are often dark sunk in holes with a corrugated tin roof. The rooms are tiny and often house more than 5 or 6 people. In the heat they are ovens where you can barely breathe. Often rucked between factories in places like Okhla, they are often surrounded by open drains that spew chemicals laden water. Many are daily wage workers who sit around at specified points hoping someone will that day need a carpenter, mason or simply someone to carry loads. If they work there is food on the table provided they have not returned via the watering hole. You will be surprised how many liquor shops, run by the State, exist in the most unlikely places. They are great revenue earners. Many of these sleep hungry. Many of them are malnourished children. Many of them are anemic moms with tiny babies. Many have to fight for water as water is scarce. Many are in deep debt to the local money lender as they often have to borrow to manage a meal or a medical emergency. Most of them left their villages because the land was not giving them enough to survive on. And the city, with its mad building frenzy, was always in need of cheap labour.

Most of these people do not know what their rights are, are barely aware of the innumerable social programmes that are initiated for them at regular intervals, following a political time table that they are unaware of. The fruits of these programmes are often hijacked because of their ignorance or because of the wiliness of those who are better educated and have learnt the ropes. I guess it is time for us to think of the millions who go hungry and take ownership of the problem so that solutions can be found.

Charity begins at home it is said. So maybe it is time we honestly look at ourselves. The article states that at least 30 percent of the food that survives bad roads and poor storage is simply thrown away.  This is not only in rich countries. It happens in India, the land where 5000 children still die every day. Look at the waste at each wedding, at each party or religious feeding. Look at the food we leave in our plates. Look at the food we leave in restaurants. Tehelka went looking in rich homes dustbins! Do look in yours. We urbanites waste 100kg of food per person per year. This is shocking and criminal. Ponder over this: Forget swank hotels in the metros, a city like Bhubaneswar wastes around 26,000 tonnes of food in its restaurants, food joints, social gatherings and households annually. That works out to around 70 tonnes of food wasted on a daily basis. Even if we were to put out a decent meal of 275 g a person, this could feed close to 95,000 people. Is it not time we started doing something. Think next time you shop!

The sad part that has shocked me over the last 10 years when I have worked with slum people, is the amount of food the urban poor waste. I have always checked my staff, but often to no avail. There is a uncontrollable urge to fill your plate and then leave part of it that goes into the dustbin. I have seen rice, chapatis, and vegetables thrown in the garbage, and food wasted at marriages in the slums. Is waste an indicator of having climbed the social ladder by one rung. In slums water is wasted, food is wasted, electricity is wasted with impunity! This makes my blood boil.

Water soon become scarce and that is because again we feel that water is perennial. Just this morning I saw workers cementing the little strip of soil that was still there between the concrete road and the so called pavement. That tiny strip allowed some water to percolate into the soil. The reason for this inane idea is probably a last ditch effort to rake in some money before the coming elections. All the cementing is choking the remaining trees and killing them slowly. It takes a lot of water to produce food. If our diet is 80 percent plant and 20 percent animal products, the water needed to produce that quantity of food will be around 1,300 m3 or half an Olympic-size swimming pool per person per year. One kilogram of meant needs 50 times more water than one kilogram of vegetables. Should we not turn at least partly vegetarian if not fully!

But to grow food you need good quality top soil. This top soil takes thousands of years  to form. Top soil erosion is the biggest environmental danger. 60 years is all it will take to exhaust the earth's top soil if business as usual continues. Only last year, the world lost an estimated 24 billion tonnes of topsoil — blown off by wind, washed away by water, made sterile by chemicals or simply covered with concrete. The fingers points at us Delhizens as we see this happening in front of our eyes and say nothing. We cynically brush it away as 'yet another way for politicians and corrupt bureaucrats to make money'! The amount of concrete that has been laid in front of our eyes is mind blogging. As I write these words the last tiny stretch of soil is being covered! Now there is not a square mm of top soil visible in front of our house. 60 years is not eternity. If we do not do anything now our children and grand children will starve unless we 'invent' a food pill or find a way to consume money, the God we all pray to!

Water is wasted by each one of us every day. Overflowing tanks, washing cars, watering huge lawns etc. How many of us in Delhi have bothered installing a rain harvesting system? Mea Culpa too! WE simply complain when drains overflow and streets are water logged. A simple water harvesting system would take care of that. And don't tell me you cannot afford it. Just give up a couple of meals at your favourite restaurant.

I was also surprised and a tad amused to see an article on obesity in the special issue on Environment. The world produces 4 billion tonnes of food every year, enough to feed its 7 billion people. Yet, every seventh person on earth sleeps hungry. Is it only because we waste 30-50 percent of our food? Or do 2.6 million children die of malnutrition every year because another 40 million under the age of five are overweight? Ironically, obesity has already become a bigger killer than starvation. Think about it. I am sure we can do something on this one!

The special issue of Tehelka as more information and also many success stories that are like oasis in the desert but prove that we can change things of we act now. I will not enumerate them. If what I have written has been a wake up call then go on line and read the rest. You do not even have to walk out in the heat to purchase a copy. It is on line!

If you believe in some of what I have written then there a few things you can do now. Buy one of those contraptions that alert you loud and clear, a  bit like railway station announcements, that 'tank is full, please switch off the pump'. It also has entertainment value as you smile each time you heart the electronic voice. Make sure you buy as much as you need. You do not have to go to wholesale markets and purchase groceries and vegetables for an army. You have vegetable vendors who come to your door step from dawn to even late night. They are a little more expensive but remember they feed their families so you would be doing a good deed! If you have a garden, even a small one and a lawn that needs constant watering why don't you try to grow a forest. Yes you can! You will be saving water and also helping the earth heal!

Look at your dustbin every day and work towards ensuring that no edible food is thrown away. If you cannot eat it, then I am sure you can find a cow or other animal who would. Don't look at beggars with contempt or cynicism. Look at them as people fighting to keep alive in the same land where you thrive.

Scream at your local representative each time you see more concrete being laid or trees being suffocated. We are literate and have a voice should we chose to use it. It is sad to see that the Highest Court of the land had to intervene to stop choking trees, and sadly even they are not heard!

Mother Earth treats you the same way. She does not  care about cast, creed, social background, gender, age, nationalities. Stop raping her every day!