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Green warriors

Vinay Jaju is a green warrior and also a businessman. He’s campaigning vigorously against new coal mining projects and he cycled all the way from Calcutta to Delhi to drive home his message earlier this year — via India’s coal belt. To bring in the green bucks he and his partner, filmmaker Ekta Kothari, have also set up a one-year-old energy solutions company Onergy, which advises clients on energy solutions from bio-waste.

Cut to Mumbai where couple Hemant and Sangeeta Chhabra along with journalist friend Simona Terron started The Bicycle Project in 2008 which gives new meaning to the word ‘recycling’ by collecting old bicycles and distributing them to tribal children in villages just outside the metropolis. The Chhabras’ two-wheeler project pedalled onto the road slowly at first but they’re now being inundated by e-mails by people who want to donate their bicycles — IIT, Mumbai, has just offered to handover 500 bikes. Meanwhile, the pedal-power project is spreading its wings with collection centres coming up in Delhi and Pune as well.

You could call them eco-warriors with a difference or even eco-entrepreneurs. Their top priority is to play their role in saving Planet Earth from an environmental holocaust — and some have found ways to make money from the green cause. So whether it’s by setting up organic farms or emphasising alternative energy solutions or launching campaigns for a greener living — these eco-warriors like Jaju and the Chhabras are spreading the word about sustainable living.

Crucially, however, the new campaigners aren’t fiery radicals who demand that we return to a Garden of Eden world without automobiles and other energy guzzling machines. Most of them have carefully taken a middle-path to usher in change. “We want development to happen and at the same time reduce environmental degradation by adopting certain healthy green practices,” says Delhi entrepreneur Govind Singh.

Singh is, in fact, a perfect example of the new breed. The 25-year-old runs an organisation, Delhi Greens, that conducts bus eco-tours to environmental hotspots and green areas around the city. He also organised a contemporary art ecology festival 48°C last December and he has launched the Indian Youth Climate Network which holds climate meets in several Indian cities and aims to create youth leaders who’ll work for the environmental cause. Says Singh: “The idea behind all these ventures is to sensitise people about the ever-growing environmental concerns.”

Take a look at Bangalore-based Poonam Bir Kasturi, a graduate of the National School of Design, who’s trying to spread the word that you don’t need to take big steps for a cleaner environment. Her chosen field of activism and business is household waste and her company Daily Dump, started in 2008, offers affordable solutions for tackling waste right at home. How it works is that Kasturi has created a range of terracotta composters that convert household waste into compost or organic manure.

Daily Dump works on an ‘open source’ model. That means she hasn’t patented the company’s technology and even offers the technology to anyone who wants it, even if that might turn them into potential rivals (she, in fact, calls them clones). “I didn’t want to make money by selling this idea,” she says. “The model can be replicated anywhere in the world and I’m here to give them all the technical knowhow related to these products.” She does, however, offer service plans for people who don’t want to do their own composting. For a fee, her company will turn up every week and take care of all the organic waste being produced.

Responsible tourism is another field that’s attracting several young environmental entrepreneurs. Take Mumbai-based Gaurav Gupta who’s the India director of Al Gore’s The Climate Project (it’s an international non-profit organisation founded by the former US vice president to boost public awareness about climate change). Gupta, who trained abroad under Gore, holds presentations and one-day workshops in corporate offices, schools and colleges. Says Gupta: “The aim is to create a network of climate leaders who can then provide climate solutions at the grassroots level.”

But he also has a second hat as a tourism entrepreneur. Gupta worked with the Boston Consulting Group in Sydney for six years and while he was there he founded an eco-tourism lodge in Australia called Canopy Tree Houses. Moving in the same track when he came back to India last year, he has set up an eco-tourism company called Travacco Pvt Ltd which promotes responsible tourism in India.

In addition to all that he also manufactures organic Bollywood-inspired T-shirts under the label Indigreen, along with partner Niddhi Singh in Mumbai.

Then, there’s Delhi-based Abhishek Behl, a wildlife enthusiast, who has started TOFT (Travel Operators For Tigers) which attempts to turn tiger tourism into a conservation tool. Under the TOFT umbrella he has 60 travel operators and hospitality players supporting responsible tourism and operating outside six national parks in India — Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Pench, Panna, Ranthambhore and Corbett. He gives lodges and hotels ratings based on how well they are following healthy environmental practices.

So Behl travels 25 days a month to these national parks laying down strict conservation standards for lodge owners and park managers. “Local communities should be sensitively involved in tourism. So we give guidelines on how to incorporate good environmental practices in their hotels and lodges like saving electricity and water, recycling of waste water, boosting jobs for locals and better sewage treatment,” he says.

Besides that, he’s also working closely with Global Tiger Patrol, a UK-based conservation agency, whose goal is to stop tiger poaching. Says Behl: “Tigers are vital for our environment as without them the deer population would increase. And overpopulation of deer will lead to the depletion of vegetation cover on farmlands.”

So how do they raise funds for their work? The answer to that differs from one green warrior to another. Many depend on voluntary donations. Then, there are others like Gupta who gets international aid to run his project in India. Jaju, on the other hand, runs his alternative energy company Onergy which takes up lighting projects in rural India. Meanwhile, Chhabra, who runs the bicycle project, is also a businessman who makes eco-friendly bags under his label Hide-Out.

And each of these have different marketing and communication strategies too. Apart from word-of-mouth publicity, most of these entrepreneurs blog to mobilise younger people — who their messages are really aimed at.

So, while Singh has a Delhi Greens blog, Hemant and Sangeeta Chhabra blog regularly on www.thebicycleproject.blogspot.com. At a slightly different level, Jaju reaches out to youngsters in Calcutta through Bengali folk art (Gambhira and Patachitra) and makes short films to get across the message that climate change could be catastrophic. The folk artists he has teamed up with stage dance dramas and short dramas in schools and colleges in Calcutta that highlight the dangers of climate change.

Similarly, Singh has attracted considerable attention with his 48°C festival which aimed to highlight environmental issues through contemporary art. In it, 24 installations were put up in eight different public places in Delhi, highlighting environmental issues like the scarcity of water and the cutting of trees. For instance, a 20ft bucket was hung near Kashmiri Gate and a tree was dangled from a crane at Barakhamba Road in Central Delhi. The festival was a great success and Singh has plans to hold it again this year.

Each of these eco-warriors has had a different level of success in their Earth crusade. Jaju is getting customers who want him to provide alternative energy solutions from bio-waste from all parts of the country including in remote corners of Kerala.

Kasturi on the other hand is upbeat about her growing business opportunities and has plans to come out with a range of chemical-free household cleaners — toilet and kitchen cleaners and detergents — made from plant extracts. And Singh is compiling a list of green spaces and water-bodies in South and East Delhi and will soon be launching a City Greens Project that will compile a directory of Mumbai’s green spaces.

At a different level, Gupta’s eco-tourism company is promoting responsible tourism by teaming up with people offering homestays (www.namastay.in). He is promoting homestays with the argument that it’s more environmentally friendly and it also allows tourists to get closer to the ‘real India with its diverse natural and cultural heritage. “This is to maximise local economic benefit in a big way,” he says.

All of them are confident that awareness about the environment has reached crescendo levels. But as Gupta says, “Everyone will have to come up with innovative strategies and more and more voices should join us in our effort to reduce the carbon footprint.” The battle to reduce the levels of environmental destruction globally will be a long and arduous one, but that isn’t about to stop this group of campaigners.

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