Sarah: Environmental Empowerment in India

Environmental empowerment. Sustainability. India. How can these words be connected to each other in a positive sense with hope for the future? When I explained to people about my upcoming trip to India through IndoGenius, I explained that we would be visiting businesses, universities, schools, cultural sites, governments etc. and seeing how India is helping solve some of the world’s biggest issues. A common response to this would be “Or seeing how India is contributing to these problems.” This is often the perspective people have towards India and environmental issues, but can neglect to see the opportunity for change. So, in coming to India, I had a mix of preconceptions, from positive curiosity to subconscious negativity.

Currently, I’m studying a Bachelor of Commerce and Science conjoint (Operations & Supply Chain Management, Environmental Science and Geography) with the aim to incorporate sustainability into businesses. Throughout the world, I see so many people pointing fingers at the ‘big giants’, claiming large companies are single handedly doing all the damage to the environment. While I’m not exempt from this, I do believe that we can empower corporations who are supposedly doing the most harm and encourage sustainable practices that consider impacts on people and the planet. So that’s a bit of background to where I stand. 
(Photo of me at Amer Fort, Jaipur)

Surprisingly, India has given me hope. If India is the equivalent of a large corporation doing harm, then they are empowering THEMSELVES to create change. In many ways, ‘clean green’ New Zealand can learn a lot from India. 

The multitude of regulations in New Zealand, while exceptional at ensuring safety, can also cause change to be reactive instead of proactive. For India, where regulations aren’t enforced as prominently, this can create an ecosystem for change. A place where ideas are thriving, being put into action and even scaled up to great magnitudes. 

In our final week while staying in Pondicherry, we visited Auroville numerous times to see what environmental solutions they are implementing. Auroville, located on the east coast of India, used to be a desert plateau where the ground was as hard as a rock. Now it’s a thriving ecosystem full of native plants and trees with immense diversity. To get to this stage, acacia was used as a catalyst for rejuvenating the desert. It is a plant, native to Australia, that is drought resistant and therefore flourished in a desert environment, creating dead matter to fertilize the ground for other plants to grow. Native plants and trees have now flourished, producing a canopy which allows for acacia to naturally die out. Nature has an incredible ability to bounce back if we allow the time and space.

We also visited Solitude Kitchen and met one of the founding members, Krishna Mackenzie, who took us through the garden. We wandered through the gardens filled with a huge array of native plants. The sun was beating down, illuminating the luscious greenery surrounding us while Krishna explained to us the ‘do nothing’ approach. It’s exactly what it sounds like – do nothing, just return organic matter to the earth and that’s all. Learning about the native Indian plants with familiar flavors, such as lemon or apple, and their medicinal properties was beyond interesting. It made me wonder what native plants we have back in Aotearoa that we don’t utilize enough. The importance of diversity in our food is like the importance of diversity in our communities and society. He spoke about how true sustainability is having a relationship from where our food comes from and the utmost importance of reestablishing our relationship with mother nature. In a simple yet profound way, he said how disconnecting from mother nature is like the disintegration of the human spirit. We all rely on the earth for life and yet we have now come to view our home as a resource that we can take advantage of and exhaust completely. Reestablishing our relationship with mother nature is hugely about having respect and being conscious about our actions. After harvesting plants that I had never heard of before, we went back to the open outdoor kitchen to cook our own lunch. I had the task of grating green papaya for the salad, which had contained none of the usual tomatoes, cucumber or lettuce. It was delicious and eye-opening. It made me really think, how can we utilize our land and native plants to feed people nutritious, delicious and sustainable food?

There were many other examples of efforts to improve environmental sustainability. Many businesses we visited were investing in sustainable supply chains and CSR practices. There were signs all around the airports about transitioning to renewable energy sources and subsidising LPG (cleaner energy source compared to coal) for impoverished communities. In Mumbai, on the back of large signs on main roads, messages reading “Green Mumbai, Clean Mumbai” also really surprised me. 

While I know it’s important to note that some of these efforts may be for political agendas or ‘greenwashing’ techniques (giving a false impression of environmental sustainability), it was still eye-opening to see. And yes, the sights that are frequently portrayed on media of open landfills, rubbish littering the streets and unfiltered sewage were things we encountered. But nonetheless, I came away still feeling hopeful for India, New Zealand and the world, that change is happening at an increasing rate. New innovations are being developed. People are empowering themselves and using their voices. Instead of getting angry at people, large companies or countries, for the degradation of our planet, we should instead direct anger at the problem. Use it to fuel your actions to create change. Lead by example and encourage others to rethink their unconscious habits that have been unquestioned for too long. Dhanyavaad, thank you India for giving me hope in the most unexpected way.

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