People's Basic Needs

Learn to Compost, Grow Kitchen Herbs & Take Care of your Plants—All From Your Couch!

The monsoon season is knocking on our doors, and the gardening enthusiasts among us must already be getting ready to welcome it with their equipment, seeds and plants.

Monsoons are a great time to nourish the plants that you have, or even nurture a garden from scratch. This weekend, begin your green journey and learn everything there is to know about gardening—from how to get plants ready for the monsoon to how to start an organic kitchen—in this online workshop.

What’s more, your participation will also help migrant labourers, daily wage earners and frontline workers. All proceeds from the session will go towards supporting hundreds of them during these difficult times.

Spend just 2.5 hours this Saturday to learn gardening techniques and be a pro-gardener by the end of it! Excited? Click here to register now!

Vani Murthy on how to compost wet waste:

Food remains are not waste and are, in fact, excellent fertilisers for your plants. Composting or vermicomposting them will make your plants stronger in addition to giving you a better-quality yield, and Vani Murthy, an urban farmer and a composting expert from Bengaluru will teach you how to go about it.

Learn what food remains can make rich compost, how to have the perfect compost without inviting insects or odour and how to utilise wet waste to the fullest. Murthy will teach two methods of composting so you can choose what works best for your home.

Follow this link to book a place now!

Nisha Bhimaiah shows how to start an organic kitchen garden:

Nisha comes from a farming family and has about 17 years of experience in teaching and mentoring. This weekend, she will guide you on how to set up the perfect organic kitchen with vegetables, herbs and flowers that suit your needs. Home gardening can be a tricky affair without proper knowledge and experience. Nisha is here to show you what kind of herbs work best for what environments, the challenges you may face while growing them and how to overcome them.

This lockdown period add some greens to your kitchen! Click here to book your place now.

Vinayak Garg will guide you on how to prepare your garden for monsoons: Image Source: Lazy Gardener/ Facebook

 

Vinayak is the founder of Lazy Gardener, a start-up that provides easy and innovative gardening solutions to urban farmers. An IIT Delhi alumnus, he understands the issues that novice urban gardeners face and wants to bring them solutions that are easy to implement, cost-effective and sustainable. This weekend, he will show you how to prepare your plants for the upcoming rains.

Plants, much like humans and animals, have different requirements as the season changes. A one-formula-all-year may hinder their health and growth. Prepare your soil and plants in advance, so they thrive during the monsoons. Follow this link to register for the online workshop.

How will this workshop help workers and labourers? Image Sources: (L) Lazy Gardener/ Facebook. (R) TBI

The Better India has started a campaign, #BetterTogether in association with IAS and IRS officers across the country. Right from the first phase of the lockdown, we have been collecting funds to help civil servants provide food, essentials and safety equipment for daily wage labourers and frontline workers.

So this weekend workshop will not only help you nurture a sustainable hobby but also help vulnerable communities stay safe. So far, thousands of labourers and workers have received help in Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu.

For more details about the campaign, click here.

To register for the gardening workshop, click here.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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IISc Researcher Turns Apartment into Gardening Heaven, Earns 6.5 Lakh YouTube Fans

“Try and loosen the topsoil of your garden plants on a regular basis,” – anyone who is into gardening is probably acquainted with this advice from their gardeners or local nurseries. However, YouTuber Dr Ekta Chaudhury goes a step further and tell you the reason behind.

“This allows aeration of roots and improves water absorption capacity,” she says in one of her videos.

In another video about air-purifying indoor plants, Ekta narrates the interesting 1989 experiment by a NASA scientist that proved the efficiency of these plants in filtering the air of toxic pollutants. 

You may find a plethora of blogs and videos speaking of plants that have such properties, but on Ekta’s Garden Up videos you will get to know the science behind it.

And why not? For the passionate urban gardener holds a PhD in Ecology and can quote scientific studies to back up her tips!

From a 1000 sq. Ft. apartment in Mumbai, Ekta has helped elevate urban gardening from a hobby for the retired generation to a fad among the Indian youth. With her expert tips on organic gardening, aesthetic videos and interactive narrative, she has garnered over 6.5 lakh subscribers on YouTube and 113k followers on Instagram. 

Encouraged by the success of her videos over the last two years, Ekta started a social enterprise under the brand name – Garden Up – where she sells beautiful, sustainable garden decor handcrafted by underprivileged women artisans across Mumbai and its suburbs.

In a conversation with The Better India (TBI), Ekta shares her journey from being a dedicated academic to a full-time entrepreneur – simply through the love of plants.

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My secret to a long and big leaf money plant or Monstera – a moss stick.. if you want to know more on how I use a moss stick, swipe up the link in my story. Happy weekend ❣️

A post shared by Dr. Ekta Chaudhary (@gardenup.in) on Feb 29, 2020 at 12:55am PST

Falling in love with Plants in the Hills  

Ekta hails from Haryana, but she spent a significant portion of her life in Noida, Faridabad and other parts of NCR. Her connection with plants came from her childhood memories.

“I remember that water supply was not available 24×7 at my home. It would come only at a particular time of the day when I was entrusted with the task of watering the plants. This habit with me, so did the know-how about plants. However, I never wanted to pursue it as a separate vocation,” recalls Ekta. 

She completed her Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from Delhi and moved to Dehradun to pursue her Master’s in Environmental Science from the Forest Research Institute. It was during her fieldwork across the alpine forests of Uttarakhand that her passion for plants intensified. She started growing plants in small pots in her hostel room, and taking care of them provided her with a deep sense of relaxation, almost synonymous with meditation. 

Incidentally, she was not far off from the mark. A meta-analysis conducted on the effects of gardening on human health stated that it has a wide range of positive health outcomes, such as reductions in depression, anxiety, and body mass index, as well as increases in life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.

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Friday green therapy..???? P.s. if you have dm me a question or a query, sorry I haven't been able to respond.. have been slightly under the weather and mostly traveling for work. I will be happy to answer your questions here in comments so that if someone else has a same question, it gets resolved.. Cheers!

A post shared by Dr. Ekta Chaudhary (@gardenup.in) on Nov 22, 2019 at 3:55am PST

“My garden expanded after I moved to IISc Bengaluru for my PhD. My hostel room housed nearly 30 plants then, as well as a little kitchen garden in my lab. Research work in itself is very cumbersome, and my garden provided me solace at the end of a tiring day,” shares the always-smiling Ekta.  

Science Meets Aesthetics in Ekta’s Videos

Around 2017, Ekta started making YouTube videos on gardening as a hobby. On weekends, she would film her videos on tips and techniques of gardening. She enjoyed the activity so much that she would often find herself waking up at 6 AM to rush to the laboratory to capture the perfect light on her plants. The reference about the science involved in every step of gardening made her videos stand out among similar content on the internet.

“We all do trimming, cutting, grafting, manuring and a whole lot of other activities for our plants. But we hardly wonder about the beauty of science being manifested in all these procedures. That’s the gap I tried to address in the domain of gardening, informing the urban gardeners about the why and how behind gardening.”

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Evening Serenity..✌️

A post shared by Dr. Ekta Chaudhary (@gardenup.in) on May 13, 2020 at 5:53am PDT

After completing her PhD in Ecology in 2019, Ekta settled in Mumbai where she focused solely on expanding Garden Up to a one-stop solution for one’s urban gardening queries and requirements. 

“Wherever There is an Empty Space, Keep a Plant” 

Presently, Ekta has around 100 indoor plants, excluding the numerous cuttings and overgrowths which she generated from the original plants. She also manages a small kitchen garden with nearly 40 vegetables and herbs. She advises buying plants from local nurseries only, as they always have fresh plants with less presence of chemicals and no artificially simulated environment to sustain their growth. “Also, the nursery people have astonishing know-how about all plants known!”

She adds how her sense of aesthetics revolves around a lot of white background with plants adorning them. Her stunning sense of home decor with plants is quite evident in all her videos. 

While searching for artistic decor for her home garden, Ekta came across many artisans, particularly women, who design ceramic pots, planters and decorative items as a vocation. She decided to provide a platform for them to showcase their skilled creations while also earning a decent monthly income. That’s how the Garden Up shop was born.

Developing a strong connection with plants


“Our sales were affected by the COVID-19 situation, but we are hoping to unveil more products in June and make up for the unprecedented loss,” admits Ekta. She is strictly particular about quality and sustainability of the materials – and ensures using as little plastic in her packaging as possible. 

Ekta now has an operating team of five people for Garden Up. Her popular YouTube videos and business venture help her comfortably sustain herself as well as her team. She also conducts online and offline workshops on urban gardening across India. The passionate gardener began these classes with the firm belief in the power of positivity inherent in gardening and the need to help people create their own havens.

In fact, a lot of psychologists advise gardening as a therapeutic gateway for patients with clinical depression or anxiety disorder. “Garden helps relieve a lot of stress and instils a feeling of satisfaction in your mind,” says Dr A Chakraborty, a counsellor from Kolkata. 

Nurture Your Plants with Homemade Compost

The urban gardener is a staunch advocate of organic farming. In fact, she herself has nurtured the habit of home composting.

“In a terracotta pot, add the wet waste from your kitchen, along with a considerable amount of curd (for the healthy bacteria) and some soil. Your compost will be ready in just a few weeks,” she advises. “Make sure to add some cocopeat or dried leaves occasionally to keep away any smell,” she adds. 

Neem oil is a good investment for all your pest management needs – believes Ekta. Judicious use of neem oil solution has helped her prevent all pest infestations so far! It’s all about taking baby steps and learning on the go.

Finding comfort in plants


For the beginners in urban gardening, Ekta advises, “Start with a couple of low-maintenance indoor plants. When you develop a general intuition about plants – like when to water, how much sunlight a plant needs or how frequently you should add compost –  then gradually move on to outdoor plants and kitchen gardening.”

Propagating indoor plants from cuttings

Any other suggestions for our readers? She chuckles and says – “Wherever there is an empty space, keep a plant. My urban gardening policy is pretty simple.” 

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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Pune Duo Turn Shipping Containers Into Offices, Homes That Can Move Around!

We all dream of a house that we can call our own. A safe haven which gives us a sense of comfort and makes us forget all our problems. But, our wish of owning a forever home can cost the environment if we aren’t mindful of the means we use to fulfil our dreams.

The construction sector is one of the most polluting industries in the world. The International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report in 2019 titled ‘Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction’. The findings revealed that the construction sector accounted for 36 per cent of energy use and is responsible for 39 per cent of carbon emissions.

Additionally, other reports show that about 50 per cent of climate change and landfill waste comes from conventional construction techniques.

If these numbers highlight anything, it is the need for sustainable alternatives that can offset the environmental damage attributed to these sectors. Luckily for us, there exist such solutions.

Studio Alternatives’ office space made using reclaimed materials and shipping containers

Pune-based ‘Studio Alternatives’, run by duo Dhara Kabaria and Sonali Phadke, upcycles old shipping containers to provide living spaces that are sustainable, portable, and functional!

The construction is quick and Dhara informs that the smallest structures can be put together in about 3-4 months, which is much faster than conventional construction processes.

The journey began in 2009 when Interior designer Dhara decided to start a design studio that functioned like a consultancy firm. Upcycling had always been at the forefront of their activities.

“We started by creating furniture that was designed sustainably and made by upcycling waste materials. For example, old wooden doors were transformed into tables, newspapers were used to make wall cladding, and discarded elements would be given a new life. We also did installations using reclaimed materials for other interior designers,” informs Dhara.

However, the turning point for Studio Alternatives came in 2014, when a client approached them with the idea of turning shipping containers into living spaces.

“This client wanted to build a hotel using shipping containers. This was an interesting project and we undertook all the design work. Unfortunately, the client lost funding for his project and we couldn’t implement the designs. But, the idea stayed with us,” she informs.

Since then, the studio delved deeper into this idea.

Now, the design studio has worked on 17 projects and upcycled 43 containers into homes, offices, and even schools!

The love for Green Design Dhara (left) and Sonali, the Pune-based duo who run Studio Alternatives

For Dhara, the interest in design and architecture developed during her formative years.

“When I was in the 11th standard, my father (a Civil Engineer) was constructing a house and a lot of architects and designers would come to our house. Meeting and speaking with them got me interested in architecture and design,” she recalls.

Dhara then decided to pursue Interior designing and enrolled at the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad. She was also interested in handicrafts and the course introduced her to weaving, woodwork, and traditional prints.

Dhara’s home and Studio Alternatives’ in-house project–The Blue house

When she had to work on her thesis in 2000, she decided to go work under Dashrath Patel, a legendary interior designer. He became her thesis guide and deeply influenced her.

“I was moved by his work. All his ideas were rooted in life and he had an empathetic approach to design which involved conditioning every material and how it can be used. Not only did he guide me on my thesis but he also taught me to ask the right questions,” she says.

In 2002, Dhara went to the Kent Institute of Art and Design in the UK to pursue a Master’s degree in Three Dimensional Design. Here, she had the independence to choose her own subjects and read books that introduced her to upcycling.

Work in progress at Studio Alternatives

“When it came to my final project, I had to find someone who had a lot of scrap material. So, I found a bicycle repair shop in Rochester.  The idea was to work with scrap material from the repair shop and create useful items by using the limited tools and skills of the shop itself. In the end, I designed a rocking chair using the discarded bicycle parts,” she smiles.

After Dhara returned from the UK in 2003, she worked with Dasrath Tael on several interior design projects, and museum designs using multi-disciplinary themes that helped her think out of the box. In the next few years, she also began freelancing for interior design projects and even joined the MIT Institute of Design. There, she taught basic design, analytical drawings, and working with wood and metal.

With all her cumulative experience, Dhara finally decided to found Studio Alternatives in 2009.

She met Sonali Phadke in 2014 when they were on their way to Mumbai for a ‘Green Idea Project’ meeting organised by the Environment Minister of Maharashtra. Sonali has a background in ecological studies and her environmental approach to design impressed Dhara. Sonali then officially joined the Studio Alternatives team in 2017 and has been working with them ever since.

Turning shipping containers into living spaces Inside the Blue House

Dhara says that their biggest learning while transforming shipping containers into livable spaces came when they completed their first project in 2014.

“After the 2013 project fell through, we met with a number of people who had an interest in container spaces.  We finally got a client in 2014 who was intrigued by the concept and decided to trust us with the project,” recalls Dhara.

Working out the whole project took them about six months, after which they delivered a 320 sq ft space that comprised a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living space. They used a 40ft X 8ft container and the completed home was installed in a day.

Three things were very clear to her after this project.

First, ensuring that the structure was strong enough to be moved from one place to the other. Second, they needed to experiment with more alternative materials when it came to designing the space inside. Third, the structure needed to be lighter and they had to look at the detailing.

For Studio Alternatives, the focus has always been to make maximum use of reclaimed materials

So, what are the best features of these homes?

Dhara says that portability is definitely the biggest advantage. The impact on the environment too is minimal because there aren’t any conventional construction materials used to construct the walls. Also, for clients who want to construct homes in remote areas, accessing building materials, masons, and other skilled workers can be a task. So, opting for a home made using shipping containers is ideal as the Studio Alternatives team works out of their own workshop.

The design studio has had its own sample space since 2015, a 160 sq ft office, made using shipping containers. In the same year, they also constructed an in-house project–The Blue House–using shipping containers, where Dhara and her husband currently live.

“This house is made using two 20ft X 8ft containers. One of the walls opens up into a deck which makes the space bigger. This house has moved around for about four times within Pune,” she says.

The design studio similarly extends these services to their former clients in case they want to move their homes. The charges for these depend on the distance and the terrain of the new location.

The bedroom inside the Blue house

The shipping containers are sourced from Jawaharlal Nehru Port and come in 40ft X 8ft and 20ft X 8ft, costing between Rs 85,000 and one lakh. The cost also depends on the condition and extent of damage to the shipping container.

Having worked on at least 17 projects since then, Dhara’s team works like a well-oiled machine. They have two teams–one inhouse team of eight people and a team of service providers like electricians, plumbers, etc, who are contracted.

“Once we have the shipping containers and the design has been worked out, fabrication is done. Thereafter, we work on the flooring, insulation, bathrooms, and kitchens. We also need to work out the electrical fixtures along with the plumbing. Once all this is done, we design the interiors and furniture,” she informs.

Interesting projects and happy clients Mr Surange’s home delivered by Studio Alternatives

When Studio Alternatives started using shipping containers to design spaces, they didn’t think they would find so many interested clients.

One of these people is Pune-based Harshal Surange. The owner of a cold storage design and consultancy firm first heard about these unique homes from friends. With a plot of land over half an acre located in the Kurunji Village about two hours away from Pune, he found his answer in Studio Alternatives for his home.

“We wanted a structure that could be moved around and hence, we got in touch with them around mid-2018. It took about 3-4 months in designing the home and by February 2019, we got our 480 sq ft home installed,” says the 44-year-old.

The house is built using three shipping containers, one at the bottom and two on top. There are two bathrooms and two rooms, along with a terrace, a feature that Harshal especially likes.

A school made using shipping containers for QUEST NGO

“Other than the fact that the home was designed with a clear understanding of what we wanted, we also like that it is sustainably built. The insulation is perfect and there is no need for air conditioners even when it gets hot outside. The house looks so different and the concept is very unique,” he says.

Studio Alternatives has worked on several projects so far, but designing a school using shipping containers was closest to Dhara’s heart. The project was for QUEST, an NGO that works on children’s education. The NGO moves its projects from one village to another for their educational programmes and hence, wanted a structure that was portable.

“In July 2016, we delivered a 640 sq ft school using two 40ft X 8ft shipping containers. The structure has washrooms and a functional pantry in addition to the classrooms. We also had artist Abha Bhagwat from Pune, who painted trees and birds on the exterior,” she says.

Overcoming hurdles and looking forward The QUEST NGO school on the inside

All the container spaces that the studio has built are innovatively designed and beautiful to look at. However, executing such ideas in a country where this trend hasn’t really caught on like in the West, challenges are bound to come up.

“One of the key challenges is installing our structures rather than building them. The terrain of the location and weather conditions pose a major challenge, especially on the day of installation. In addition to that, finding transporters who are cooperative is a little difficult, which can otherwise make the installation much smoother,” she says.

Although the country is in a state of lockdown, the process of brainstorming hasn’t come to a halt.

Currently, the innovative design studio is looking to incorporate services that include greywater recycling, creating spaces for gardening, and other features to make the living spaces more sustainable.

Dhara says that they have been experimenting with all this at their studio. They are also looking at designs that are quicker to install and more cost-effective, without compromising on the quality.

The Studio Alternatives’ team

“Our goal is to provide solutions based on the ‘3R’ theory–reduce, reuse, and recycle. The idea has always been to use our creativity in extending the life reclaimed materials we work with and to show how it can become a mainstream lifestyle choice. In the future, we hope to facilitate these values among communities who will be more open to environmentally-friendly practices,” she says, signing off.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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Your Food Waste Can Cut Your LPG Costs By Up To 60%. This Startup Shows You How!

With a population of 7.8 billion, the world produces 3.5 million tonnes of garbage every day. About 0.1 million tonnes are produced in India alone. As communities continue to generate waste, where will all our trash go? Well, Shaktistellar, a Bhopal-based startup focussed on providing sustainable living solutions, has developed a solution for this—Portable Biogas Units.

These units or ‘digestors’ convert your kitchen waste into cooking gas, thereby disposing of waste safely and hygienically, and reduce also a family’s LPG need by half.

“An average Indian family consumes one cylinder a month, which is 12 in a year. According to government provisions, only 6 cylinders are provided at a subsidized price of Rs 400, the other 6 months, it costs Rs 700-800. If a portable biogas unit is installed in homes, families will spend 2400 for the first 6 months on LPG and use biogas, to power the stove, for the next six months. This way, they can save an average of Rs 4800” says Ankit Roy, who along with Praveen Modi, is the co-founder of Shaktistellar.

There’s an interesting story behind Shaktistellar’s founding. After passing out from National Institute of Technology (Bhopal) in 2012, Roy started working with a company in Mumbai where he was closely involved in the power sector, and the job made him want to explore sustainable energy solutions for homes.

In 2016, he moved back to Bhopal and soon, began the process of installing a solar panel on his rooftop. However, the Electricity Board of Madya Pradesh got wind of it, reached his place and asked him to halt the project.

“They were not happy to see what I was doing and asked me to uninstall the grid from my roof because it was against the law. But I was familiar with rules and regulations pertaining to renewable energy, so I wrote a letter to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, which, in turn, led to a series of amendments in Madhya Pradesh’s policy for the same. This victory encouraged me to start a company that offers an all-around sustainable living solutions,” says Ankit with a smile.

Established in 2017, the startup was initially bootstrapped, but in 2019 they received a grant from Scotland India Impact Link for Social Enterprise. Apart from the portable biogas digester, Shaktistellar also offers Solar Rooftop installations, E-Vehicle conversions and rainwater harvesting solutions.

“Currently, we cater to places in and around Bhopal that are accessible by road. The raw materials are carried in a truck that we rent and the installation is done by myself and my team,” says Roy.

How Does The Biogas Unit Work?

The biogas unit requires a free space of 1.2 square meters and can be installed anywhere—in the backyard, terrace, or balcony.

It comes with a digestion tank in which everyday kitchen waste is dumped and converted into gas. There are two kinds of tanks—of a 3 litre capacity and 5 litre capacity, respectively. While the former costs Rs 40,000, the latter costs Rs 51,000.

First, the ‘digester’ is fed with kitchen-waste, such as vegetable and fruit peels, leftover foods and more.

“As an additional feature to ensure the waste decomposes faster, a mixer system crushes all the waste that is dumped. If there are any hard metals or stones, the motor will immediately stop and the particle has to be removed manually from between the blades,” says Ankit.

Decomposing Waste

For obtaining the right bacteria to digest the waste, cow dung is required. “This is added only the first time to trigger anaerobic decomposition. Further on, only waste can be added every day into the digester,” he says.

In urban areas, it is hard to find fresh dung. So, dry cow dung is mixed with water, converted into a paste, and is added as a starter.

“The dry dung is procured from a plant that manufactures briquettes in Bhopal,” he says.

Within 10 to 15 days, decomposition takes place and methane gas rises within the chamber while the mushy-waste known as slurry settles at the bottom. “The number of days for the waste to decompose depends on the weather too. In summer it will take only 10 days but during monsoon, it may take more than 15 days,” says Ankit.

Finally, this gas rises into a fibre dome placed above the digestion chamber. The chamber exerts pressure over the gas and pushes it through an outlet, which is connected to the gas-stove in the kitchen.

What is left behind in the digester tank will continue to decompose further waste. What’s more, the slurry left behind can also be used as a manure for plants.

How Long Can I Cook Using The Biogas Unit?

The 5-litre tank offers a continuous gas supply for 5 hours while the 3-litre tank can run for 2.5 hours. “The unit is also equipped with a gas level indicator, which helps monitor the quantity,” says Ankit.

Kailash Narayan Nayak, a resident of Chunabhatti, Mumbai, who installed Shaktistellar’s 3-litre biogas unit in his house, is very happy with its performance.

“For the last 6 -7 months, my family and I have been using the biogas stove. Though the flame is not too strong, it works just perfectly to make rice, roti, sabzi and other basic food items. It has helped us save money. And the environment from a lot of waste. Apart from the gas, I also use the slurry as manure for my garden.

Apart from home users, the biogas unit supports industry requirements too. Some of their clients include—Samrat Ashok Technological Institute, a commercial hostel, and an army regiment hostel.

In the future, Ankit and his team are planning for a Series A funding to enhance and expand their business to other cities.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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72-YO Engineer Is a Hero for 350+ Farmers in 17 Maharashtra Districts. Here’s Why

Ulhas Paranjpe, a civil engineer from Mumbai, would visit Ratnagiri, a port town on the Konkan Coast, once every year. His relatives owned several acres of land in the area, and he found it refreshing to be in the midst of nature, away from urban life.

During one such trip, Paranjpe observed that the fields in the area were completely devoid of crops at the time of the year when he was there, and decided to ask his cousin why.

“I kept asking him the same question, almost like a playful taunt. He heard me out twice, thrice and then lost his patience and said, “You are a civil engineer, why don’t you give me water all year round for my crops?” Paranjpe shares with The Better India (TBI).

That question, or rather, demand became the driving force of Paranjpe’s career. It got him thinking of how his engineering degree could help farmers get access to water throughout the year. After careful study of India’s climate, Maharashtra’s topography and the systems currently in place, he concluded that rainwater harvesting was the way to go.

Since 2003, through their trust, Jalvardhini Pratishthan, Paranjpe and his family have been working tirelessly to bring rainwater harvesting systems closer to farmers and Adivasi tribes of Maharashtra. As of 2020, they have successfully built over 350 such systems in 17 districts and taught its principles to thousands of others.

In a conversation with The Better India, the 72-year-old shares why he thinks this water conservation method is the future of agriculture.

The Water We Get vs The Water We Save: Image Courtesy: Sanjay G

Even though the Konkan strip and other parts of Western Maharashtra occupy 10 per cent of Maharashtra’s land area, they receive about 46 per cent of the state’s total rainfall. Agriculture is one of the two primary occupations of the region, and hence, one can estimate how crucial freshwater is to the residents of Konkan.

However, most of the water that the rains bring gets washed away into the sea, leaving nothing for the farmers to fall back on if the following months are harsh.

“Many farmers thus can utilise just four months of the year for their crops. They sow seeds in the kharif season but cannot utilise the rabi season given the scarcity of water in those months. If the 1.84 crore people sitting in Mumbai can have easy access to water all year round, why can’t the same be true of the farmers in rural areas?” Paranjpe questions.

Water storage in rural or urban areas is usually synonymous with bores or wells. Rainwater harvesting systems are rarely the instinctive answer. But maybe that’s where we are going wrong.

“Rainwater harvesting is hardly a new concept. It has been a norm in many countries, including India, for thousands of years! However, with age, water increasingly became the responsibility of the governing authority and less of the community. This made us forget the power we have right on our rooftops, agricultural lands and such premises,” argues Paranjpe, who along with his team, wants to bring this power back into the lives of farmers in Konkan and other parts of Maharashtra.

With millions of litres of water saved with minimal cost, they want to empower farmers to take charge of their land, even when the monsoons are far away. He firmly believes that every farmer must own one water storage tank.

Rainwater Harvesting As a Tool Of Empowerment: Teaching youngsters how to make these systems. Image Courtesy: Ulhas Paranjpe

Jalvardhini Pratishthan was established in 2003 in Paranjpe’s hometown, Mumbai. He shares that the initial phase of the organisation was filled with various campaigns in Raigad and other Konkan areas of Maharashtra to make farmers aware of this initiative. One of the campaigns was the opening of “resource centres” which enabled farmers to see and experience what rainwater harvesting is.

“When one of them got the system constructed, the others could clearly see the benefits. Word travels fast in a village, and that’s how farmers started approaching us. Now, we don’t need to run special campaigns. Even in this lockdown period, I get about 1 or 2 calls a day, asking for the systems,” the engineer tells TBI.

What sets Jalvardhini apart is that they are not contractors who do their job and leave. They teach the farmers how to build their own rainwater harvesting system. The primary benefit of this method is that once a farmer builds a system, it doesn’t seem like a strange idea. He can pass on the knowledge to his community, starting a chain of sustainable agriculture practices.

“A villager does not wait for an architect, a contractor, and an engineer to build his house. He partners with the local mason and builds his own home. Why should a rainwater harvesting system be any different?” Paranjpe asks.

In Paranjpe’s experience, many government schemes have failed on a rural level because they assume that the villagers will maintain the infrastructure long after it is built. But due to a strain on their resources and a certain bystander effect, that is rarely the case. By making rainwater harvesting systems and individual’s resources, Jalvardhini Pratishthan also puts the onus of wear and repair on the farmer.

The Impact Of Rainwater Harvesting Systems: Image Courtesy: Ulhas Paranjpe

Anil Harpude, a farmer, based in Raigad, often mentors others to take up sustainable techniques. He shares that in many Konkan regions, water flows in streams until February and then they start drying up. The rainwater harvesting systems he has built, in association with Paranjpe, has solved this issue to a large extent.

“Earlier, they would get water through diesel pumps. Not only was that a costly option, but it also meant that the farmer with the most pumps gets more water. These pumps also waste a lot of water. I installed a rainwater harvesting system myself and encouraged five other farmers to do so too. We noticed that our expenses are cut by 40 per cent, thanks to this,” he tells TBI.

Following their lead, about 15 other farmers have also installed the systems in their fields.

Image Courtesy: Sanket More

Sanjay G, a techie from Pune, has a small farm and farmhouse in Ratnagiri. Two years ago, he built a rainwater harvesting system in association with Jalvardhini Pratishthan. “We receive just 150-200 litres of water on summer days which was insufficient for the trees on the premises, and so, we built the tank. But my main objective was to encourage the masons, gardeners and other workers there to follow suit and conserve water in their farms,” he shares.

Jalvardhini Pratishthan has built 350+ rainwater harvesting tanks in Amravati, Aurangabad, Beed, Jalna, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Nanded, Nandurbar, Nashik, Palghar, Pune, Raigad, Ratnagiri, Satara, Sindhudurg, Solapur and Thane. They have also undertaken projects in Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Uttarakhand. Also, they have mentored 8 NGOs and 33 colleges so they can pass on the knowledge to areas where they have influence.

Their ‘natural fibre cement tank’ is an innovative technique of using eco-friendly materials for the construction of rainwater harvesting systems.

“For an 8000-litre tank, we take Rs 25,000 as a donation, and for a 15,000-litre tank, we take Rs 40,000. I understand that many farmers and Adivasi tribes do not have adequate financial resources to build rainwater harvesting systems. In such cases, the trust bears half the cost,” he says, adding that these capacities do not suffice a farmer’s water needs all year round. They are there to fill the gap between January to May when water in wells and borewells runs out, and the farmer needs to water his fields.

Paranjpe began his efforts thanks to a challenge that his cousin threw at him, but what it has culminated into is truly amazing and inspiring. The constant droughts, floods and agricultural problems that India is facing in recent times have shown us how crucial rainwater harvesting has become.

With efforts like the Jalvardhini Pratishthan, we can reduce the burden on our farmers.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

Feature Image Courtesy of Sanket More. Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: contact@thebetterindia.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Bhopal Brothers Make 40% Cheaper E-Scooters That Cost Just Rs 5 For 80 Km!

If there is one silver lining amidst the pandemic, it is the drastic change in air quality across India, thanks to a drop in fossil-fuel guzzling vehicles on roads.

Who would have thought that no vehicles on the road would result in the visibility of the Himalayan range in villages of Punjab? Not just that, metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru are also witnessing a drop in vehicular emissions.

The takeaway, then, is clear, that to have clean air, we need to cut down on vehicles that emit nitrogen oxide, thus reiterating the signal to switch to cleaner modes of transportation like Electric Vehicles (EV).

The good news is that the government and e-vehicle manufacturing companies across India are attempting to make the switch easier for consumers.

Take, for instance, the FAME II (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid & Electric Vehicles) scheme that offers subsidies and incentives to manufacturers. Also, the reduced GST on EVs to 5 per cent from the previous 12. Companies are also not far behind in offering a range of affordable, smart, and eco-friendly options in terms of two, three, and four-wheelers.

Joining this much-needed push is Bhopal-based Enigma Automobiles Private Limited started in 2015 by brothers Anmol (30) and Alankrit (27) Bohre.

Bohre brothers, founders of Enigma Automobiles Private Limited

The EV company manufactures e-rickshaws and e-scooters with local manufacturing parts, thus offering them at 40 per cent cheaper rates than their polluting counterparts.

Highlighting the importance of electric vehicles, Anmol tells The Better India:

“COVID-19 has shown us how nature can transform in a short period. If we move towards a renewable source of energy like electric or solar, we can help retain nature in its pure form. Fossil fuels are going to end one day. Through EVs, we can reduce our carbon footprints. It can also help our economy as a majority of crude oil is imported. We started our venture with this vision.”

Enigma offers a warranty up to three years on scooters and rickshaws, and the best part is that the vehicles can be recycled. Also, the green vehicles are water-proof and fire-resistant.

Since its inception, the company had sold around 300 scooters and rickshaws each. They have a wide range of clientele in three states, ranging from a vegetable vendor, PETA, to big companies like Top Town and iShares.

How It Started Enigma has sold around 600 e-vehicles

There is an interesting story behind the birth of Engima. It was not started as a dream project or an entrepreneurial drive. Instead, it came from the necessity to make eco-friendly transport alternatives after a visit to Delhi, one of the world’s most populated cities.

A few years ago, Anmol was running his real estate consultancy firm in Bengaluru, while Alankrit was studying engineering. On a visit to Delhi in 2015, they came across electric rickshaws with open doors.

“We were fascinated and intrigued to see rickshaws that made no noise and did not need petrol or diesel. Next thing we knew, we were researching e-vehicles in the Indian market. Green vehicles have an immense potential to bring about an ecological change in the automobile industry. That was our trigger to create a similar model,” shares Anmol, also an Engineer.

Shuttling work and studies with the manufacturing of an e-rickshaw, the Bohre brothers were ready with their first model. They invested Rs 2.5 lakh from their savings and made it from scrap.

“We had several setbacks in terms of welding, suspensions, wiring, and short circuits before our final product was functional. We tested the model on our family farm and the hilly roads of Bhopal. It garnered attention and praise from locals, who asked us to manufacture for them. That’s when the idea of Engima struck,” informs Alankrit.

They borrowed money from their father and invested Rs 12 lakh in starting the company.

The duo got a certificate stating that their company is in compliance with the Central Motor Vehicles Rules from the International Centre for Automotive Technology in Gurugram.

Features of the e-Scooter E-scooters can run up to 140 kilometres on a single charge
  • Priced between Rs 49,000-78,000, Enigma has three scooter variants–Ambier, Crink, and GT450, “We have two batteries options: lead-acid and lithium-ion. The battery life of lithium is five times more,” says Anmol.
  • Powered by BLDC Motor 250 Watt, the dust-proof battery takes up to four hours for a full charge. The scooters come with battery swapping technology where a user can replace the depleted battery with a charged one. This process takes a couple of minutes.
  • On a single charge (which can be done at home or in charging stations), scooters can run up to 140 kilometres.
  • Other features include tubeless tyres, front disk brakes, the rear drum brake, rear hydraulic shocker, front hydraulic suspension, three electronic gear system, reverse gear, LED head and tail light, digital LED speedometer and so on.
Features of E-Rickshaw E-rickshaws have a 3-gear system
  • Enigma is a pioneering startup that has installed a gear system in its two rickshaws models, Marut, a passenger vehicle, and Marut LDX, a loader.
  • At Rs 1.10 lakh, the e-rickshaw comes with a detachable lithium-ion battery that can be charged within 2.5 hours, while the lead-acid battery is charged in eight hours. The best part about the battery is that it can be charged anywhere via a conventional household power socket and comes with a range of up to 100 km on a single charge.
  • The battery life is equivalent to 400 cycles. In other words, it will run for 15 months, and the owner can get it changed from a local manufacturer.
  • The vehicle is also equipped with a remote keyless system that allows the vehicle to start and stop with a remote.
  • Other features include tubeless tires, LED headlights, and a mobile charging option.
  • Enigma also offers a buy-back policy on e-rickshaws where the owner can compensate their vehicle after usage with cash or a new vehicle.

Giving a positive review about the company’s e-rickshaw, Rajiv M D of Ananya Package in Madhya Pradesh tells The Better India:

“For our packaging deliveries, we were looking for electric vehicles, and we came across Enigma. Initially, we were hesitant to buy a locally manufactured rickshaw. After testing, we decided to purchase it. I can vouch for its quality as it can run on bad roads as well. Plus, they provided an excellent service.”

Overcoming Challenges & Future Plans

One of the biggest challenges the Bohre brothers faced was forming a trusted network of suppliers for battery and other material.

In the initial period, vendors would often take the brothers for granted by charging exorbitant rates or compromising on quality. It was only with time and experience that a strong team was formed.

Another ongoing problem is educating customers about their products. Whether it is a thelewala or a big company, the consumer needs great efforts to be convinced about the benefits of an e-vehicle and its specifications.

For this, the duo went to the extent of displaying open batteries in their showroom in Bhopal. They are presently developing another model of e-scooter and hope to venture into e-bikes as well.

However, amidst all the hardships, they have established a strong presence in the electric vehicle industry, and aim to achieve 30 per cent of the market share by 2025.

In the last decade or so India has witnessed an explosion of electric vehicles. As per a report of Autocar India, the total EV sales in India crossed 7.5 lakh units and reached 7.59 lakh units in 2019. The significant one-year-jump is a good sign towards sustainability, and startups like Enigma have a crucial role to play.

Get in touch with Enigma here.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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This Dynamic IAS Officer Has a Village Named in Her Honour. Here’s Why!

“My posting was rushed as the clashes took a violent turn. It was almost an overnight move for me. The mistrust was at an all-time high when I took charge. The issue at hand was sensitive and needed subtlety and mature handling,” recollects Divya Devarajan, a 2010-batch IAS officer about her posting to Adilabad, Telangana amidst the tribal conflict of 2017.

With a firm belief in the power of dialogue and discourse, she knew that she had to find a way to get through the community for arbitration to work. Within three months, the solution-driven lady became proficient in the language of the Gonds (Gondi), enough to have a conversation with the people. And her efforts paid off.

The people only wanted someone to listen. And she did.

“Once they realised I could speak their language, they poured their hearts out. In three months, the scene of the panchayats meetings went from the groups sitting in pindrop silence to speaking freely,” says Divya.

From appointing special tribal coordinators, language translators in government hospitals, making the administrative office more accessible, to learning the language herself, Divya went from being just an “Officer Madam” to a member of their families.

And now, as a new District Collector takes charge, the villagers paid their tribute to her by christening a village in her name.

A Village named Divyaguda – A Tribute to an IAS Officer Divya Devarajan, IAS officer batch 2010

Recently, the denizens of Adilabad named a village “Divyaguda” in Divya’s honour. This gesture shows the kind of impact she has left on the people and their gratitude towards her for bringing a change in their lives.

“If I were still in the district, I would have convinced them not to do this,” smiles Divya who was appointed as Secretary and Commissioner for Women, Child, Disabled and Senior Citizens in February 2020.

The community that Divya worked so closely with won’t forget the proactive lady who believed in providing quick solutions to several issues. Homing in on the basic problems that the region faced – high rates of illiteracy, unemployment, sanitation, irrigation health and floods, among others, she also worked incessantly to resolve the conflicts in the area.

“I appointed a special officer for the welfare of particularly vulnerable tribal groups to address their issues with more focus and better efficacy. It was important to understand their issues from their perspective, rather than rushing in with changes that were seen to be right by me,” adds the bureaucrat.

Adilabad is a region with a history of intertribal violence. From curfews to shutting down of data connectivity, the region had seen it all. In such a situation, the open-minded and soft-spoken Divya managed to earn the trust of the tribals and find a place in their hearts.

Maruthi, a tribal leader from the Thoti community, a particularly vulnerable section, who was also instrumental in naming the village – Divyaguda, tells TBI, “We have had several collectors come and take charge – would you believe me if I said that the first time I stepped into the Collector Office was when Divya madam took charge? Until then no one seemed to care.”

When asked about the impact the IAS officer created in their lives, he shares, “First and foremost, she made the office accessible to us. She visited each household in the village and knew us all by our names.”

Maruthi

The region where Maruthi stays in prone to annual flooding, and after Divya took charge, she took steps to level the land which helped to a great extent. “We are tribals, we do not have the means to get any big gift but wanted to ensure that generations after me also acknowledge the work that Divya madam did for us, and hence we named our village after her.”

Learning their Language, Winning their Trust Leading by example – Divya

Many bureaucrats before Divya had tried to learn Gondi, one of the tribal languages spoken in Adilabad, in an attempt to effectively communicate with them. While a majority of officers stopped with the basics, Divya persisted and learnt enough to be able to hold meaningful conversations with them.

“I wanted to make a connection with them, and it wasn’t just about being able to greet them,” dimples Divya. Each day, after work, she diligently spent some time with Durwa Bhumanna, a senior announcer of All India Radio station in Adilabad.

The fact that Divya learnt the language was of great advantage to her as the issues faced by the people started coming to the fore. They started to trust her as they saw her make a genuine effort to understand them. She helped solve certain long-pending land issues in favour of tribals which were represented in the Monday Grievance Redressal sessions. Also, she streamlined cotton procurement and created platforms for tribals to access Minimum Support Price for their produce.

“It was important for us to start a meaningful dialogue with the groups,” says Divya. “Earning their trust was difficult, we were seen as people who had come to take away their rights from them, but we managed to find a middle ground,” says Divya.

Knowing that a language barrier may prove to be a bottleneck in communication, the IAS officer also appointed a Special Tribal Coordinator and Gondi language translators in the District Hospital (RIMS) to ensure better access to treatment.

Helping the People Learn their Rights People’s person.

Divya’s primary thrust in Adilabad was to encourage the aggrieved tribes to use the legal and constitutional means to find solutions to their problems.

To that end, she appointed PESA (The Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996) coordinators at Gram Panchayat level and quickly filled the vacancies to create awareness on their rights and how to use them. She also helped revive their traditional panchayats called Rai Centers and engaged them in developmental activities.

Furthermore, to duly honour and preserve the culture of the tribal communities, Divya made efforts to officially support their main festivals like Dandari-Gussadi and Nagoba Jatra and document their traditions in the form of a documentary.

I asked Divya, who pursued engineering from BITS Pilani, about her motivation to become an IAS officer, and she took me back to her childhood.

A grounded and accessible officer.

Divya speaks about her grandfather, who was a farmer in Tamil Nadu. She says, “I saw how the loan system worked and how inadvertently they all (farmers) got pulled into it and lost so much. I have seen my grandfather hide in the local temple out of sheer fear of the officials coming to collect the money.”

This incident made her realise how much the administration can do to help farmers, and change their lives by listening to their problems and giving concrete solutions. In Adilabad, she provided monetary and ambulance support to tribal patients who needed surgeries and better treatment in Hyderabad whenever needed.

Another reason behind her career choice was Divya’s father, who worked with the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB). “He would often speak about the joy he felt at serving the people. Back in the 60s when he helped electrify villages, the happiness that he saw on farmers’ faces was his job satisfaction and I wanted to feel that as well,” she says.

Divya realised early that being part of the service would allow her to make a large-scale impact. It seems the IAS officer is already on the right track if the love of the people in Adilabad is anything to go by. After all, how many IAS officers get a village named after them?

“On a lighter note, I have had some of my friends call me and put in a request to have a small lane named after them as well,” laughs Divya, who feels she has miles to go and people to help.

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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How a Freedom Fighter Gave India Its Favourite Pain Balm, Amrutanjan

To any kid growing up in the 1980s or 1990s in India, a medicine cabinet without Amrutanjan would be almost impossible to imagine. The iconic yellow glass bottle contained a magical remedy that healed the worst headaches and body pains. I, for one, always thought that the Marathi name for pain balm was Amrutanjan because my grandmother would ask only for that whenever she suffered a headache.

Did you know that this must-have pain balm was a product designed by a freedom fighter, journalist and social reformer named Kasinadhuni Nageswara Rao?

And that, apart from bringing us this balm, the man, who was also known as Nageswara Rao Pantulu, participated in the civil disobedience movement alongside Mahatma Gandhi and played a crucial part in the formation of Andhra Pradesh?

Amrutanjan: Our favourite pain balm alchemised by a freedom fighter Amrutanjan’s campaign in 1962. Image Source: amrutanjan

Rao was born in Andhra Pradesh’s Krishna district in 1867. After completing his primary education from his hometown and graduation from the Madras Christian College, Rao moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to work for an apothecary business. Here, he would learn the basics of formulating medicines.

Following that, he moved to Mumbai to work for a European firm, William and Company where he quickly climbed the ladder of professional hierarchy and ended up becoming a proprietor.

However, he was itching to start something of his own. Perhaps his nationalistic beliefs played a part in that—after all, he was influenced by Kandukuri Veeresalingam Pantulu, the father of the renaissance movement in Telugu.

Taking his experience from the apothecary work in Calcutta, Rao formulated a strong-smelling, yellow analgesic balm and founded a company to manufacture it on a large scale in Mumbai in 1893.

The initial phases of every business are very tough and in order to popularise his brand, Nageswara Rao would distribute the balm free of cost at music concerts!

(As an aside, this strategy seems to be quite a hit for many of our favourite brands. Karsanbhai Patel had used the same campaign to popularise his washing powder, Nirma.)

Surely enough, Nageswara Rao’s business picked up and although the balm was priced at just ten annas in its early days, Amrutanjan made the Andhra businessman a millionaire.

The idea of Andhra Pradesh: Kasinathuni Nageswara Rao. Image Source: Wikipedia

While the business was flourishing, Rao also used this influence and reach to carry out social reforms. He firmly believed in the need for a separate state for the Telugu people. Thus, he started organising efforts for the Telugu speaking public in Mumbai, where Amrutanjan Limited was based. Subsequently, he founded a weekly journal called Andhra Patrika there.

In five years, this journal became very popular and Rao decided to move it to Madras (Chennai) in 1936 where he could reach a larger Telugu population. The journal became a daily here, and he authored impassioned articles in favour of separating the Andhra state from the Madras Presidency.

In the following years, Rao became one of the founders of the Andhra Movement, making this demand more visible. The movement got a lot of traction from Telugu speakers and an official committee was formed to organise efforts.

From 1924 to 1934 Rao worked as the president of the Andhra State Congress Committee. His constant efforts in this movement, his involvement in the freedom struggle and his nationalistic articles earned him the name, ‘Desoddhaaraka’ or uplifter of the masses. In November 1937, it was in his home that Telugu leaders organised a meeting to chart an action plan for the Andhra state.

However, the raging world war and India’s post-independence struggles pushed the cause of the Andhra state aside for a while and it was ultimately formalised only on the 19th of December, 1952.

Unfortunately, Rao passed away on 11 April 1938, just five months after he chaired the meeting of Telugu leaders in his home, and could not see his dream materialise. However, his ideas, his publishing house (the Andhra Grandha Mala) and the libraries it created, and finally, India’s favourite pain balm, Amrutanjan, live on as his legacy.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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India Must Stop Failing its Children Today. And Here’s What We Need to Do.

Recently, I read a story about a 12-year-old Adivasi girl from Chhattisgarh, who had been working in the chilli fields of Telangana. Desperate to return home, she left with other labourers and died after walking for three days.

This is but one of the tragic stories as the COVID-19 pandemic, and resultant lockdown continues across the country.

The lack of voice, the sense of despair, the lack of institutional support, especially when it comes to what is happening to our children—there is no vocabulary for this situation.

Is this a humanitarian crisis, or a moral one?

Regardless, we have failed our children today.

The situation in homes is one of gloom.

The onset of the lockdown coincided with summer vacations for most school children. During this time, they would have been at home for since summers are very hot across the country. They might have gone for a swim or walked around with friends at times.

Many would usually not go hungry, because their parents would have been working, and there would have been an income, and hence, food.

It is different now.

Though children are spending more time at home with their parents, there is a sense of gloom. Being out of school and at home in conditions of insecurity, with no reserves of food, is likely to affect them badly. This is going to worsen the learning crisis in the country.

Getting children back to school is going to be a problem after COVID-19. Children who are hungry, who come from homes that have been denied dignity, won’t be in the mood to go back to school. Currently, the system can’t teach children who are hungry and unwilling to go back.

The Draft National Education Policy talks about a learning crisis in the country. This is going to worsen, and become a crisis of the entire education system, post-COVID-19, if we don’t pay attention. Because the gap is in the system that doesn’t respect the poor, the first-generation learner, the Dalit, the Adivasi, the children who come without proper clothes or a bath. We have to create an atmosphere which will encourage these children to go back to school.

If the system learns to respect these children, they will look forward to going back to schools, and then they will learn.

We need to strengthen our child protection institutions.

There is a large and well-structured edifice comprising systems and institutions that make up the juvenile justice system in our country. We have the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU), the village-level Child Protection Committees, and other entities that are designed to take care of children who need care and protection.

However, they are severely underfunded. The government must trust them, invest in them, and allocate them large sums of money to ensure that abandoned and vulnerable children are reached. There is little point in having a welfare committee or a child helpline when there is no funding or money to operate.

At present, we have only Rs 1,500 crore for the protection of 472 million children in the country.

Despite this lack of funds and attention from governments, the entities are working well; however, this is primarily due to the commitment of the people in these institutions, the authority they exercise through the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, and their efforts to reach out to children. The lack of funds shows just how little we put children at the centre. We don’t care enough.

The worst affected are urban poor children.

There is a gap in information around urban street children. While we know what’s happening in the shelter homes run by us, Rainbow Homes, and others, there is no information on what is happening to numerous homeless street children. There are a few in the temporary shelters created by the state, but there isn’t much information.

People tend to glorify the independence self-esteem of street children, and the fact that they don’t seek help. But this attitude harms the children. Every child must be able to realise their full potential. And they can’t do that if they don’t get help—they need support, education, and capacity.

We’ve seen children who enter shelter homes stating that they are fine and can manage. But without help in building their capacities, they grow up vulnerable and become adults who don’t have the skills to deal with society’s complexities and are at the receiving end of police atrocities and other problems. There is limited use of self-esteem when children cannot enjoy equal rights as citizens of this country.

The worst affected, though, are migrant children who work as labour across Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Mumbai in hotels, sweatshops, dhabas, and factories. They have been abandoned; their employers have left them behind and gone off to their homes and villages, with nowhere for them to go.

In some cases, 50-60 children are staying in a dungeon-like place—at their workplace, because they live and work in the same place. They have no food and no way to get back home. They have become invisible to the state and the people at large. They are stuck for no fault of theirs. And there are no reports of rescue or policy decisions regarding them.

And while there has been a fair amount of attention on adult migrant labour, we have seen no resource, policy, government directive, or debate on migrant child labour, many of whom have gone as trafficked child labour.

It is worrisome that we haven’t raised the debate on these children at the national level.

We need to create compassionate systems.

There is a lack of sensitivity and knowledge about the poor. The middle class has an indifferent and condescending attitude and believes that people are poor because they haven’t worked hard enough as we have. These are deeply entrenched attitudes, and we are not as democratic as we think we are.

Democracy is not just about voting every five years; it’s about equality, social justice, and inclusion, and if we don’t understand this, then we are perpetuating an anti-democratic culture in the country. We will only be able to change this through popular movements and uprisings. The middle class is socialised to believe that we are doing people a favour; hence there has to be a democratisation of politics where the poor capture spaces. No one is going to invite the poor to play a role in democracies—they will have to fight.

And in those struggles, we will have to become the support structure, so that they win the battles for health, education, and representation. We shouldn’t play any leadership role—they must have the agency—we must merely support the leadership that emerges in an organic process and see that those battles are successful.

We must put pressure on governments.

The crisis has brought different types of nonprofits to work together. Regardless of their fields—health, education, children—they have all come together to work on hunger and starvation. They are jumping orbits, sharing experiences, discussing, coming together, and joining forces.

While this is a good thing, we must also put pressure on governments to do their part, without getting frustrated. We must learn to say the same things a thousand times over, till they respond to the needs of the marginalised and the vulnerable. They might not listen, but we have to say it again and again, and maybe use different channels of communications, so that they put children at the centre of their work.

It is time to take concrete action to strengthen child rights.

To ensure that the rights of children are protected and enforced, here are five things that we can encourage and support the governments to focus on.

1. Strengthen the institutions that make up the juvenile justice system: Every institution meant for children must be trusted and given the funds required to reach out to the most vulnerable child.
2. Decentralise authority: We must trust our gram panchayats and fund them to take decisions. Gram panchayats can track every child through school attendance registers. Since the government claims that we have 98 per cent enrolment, the names of all the children in the village should be in these registers. The panchayats must go through it, see if any children from the village are missing, and use their resources to get them back.
3. Get migrant children back home: Every attempt should be made to track and get migrant child labourers back. There are established protocols to do this, and we must do this urgently.
4. Strengthen helplines: It is not enough to register the calls that Childline or other helplines receive. We must build their capacity and provide them with funding to respond to more people. We must also publicise these helplines so that more children use them.
5. Build awareness: Children must be made aware of the support structures that exist for them so that they can use them. We must look at different channels in which we can send them messages so that they learn about these structures and avail of them.

Our children are informed by a sense of justice—they want to change reality for themselves and others. They want to make things right. They have not lost their sense of justice, and this is what we must learn from them.

This article was first published on India Development Review. It emerged from a webinar series, On the Front Lines, co-curated by egomonk and Rishabh Lalani. You can watch all recorded sessions from the series here.

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Manipur School Principal Travels 120 Km to Villages for a Touching Reason!

The alarm rings at 3 am. and Robin S Pukhram quickly steps out of bed. In about 30 minutes, he is ready and on his way to pick up his colleagues. Where are they headed even before the crack of dawn?

‘Robin Sir’, as he is popularly known, is the Principal of St Stephen English School in Churachandpur, Manipur. At this unique school, parent-teacher meetings (PTM) are not conducted at the institution. In fact, Robin and his staff visit the villages where their students’ parents live.

Robin, on the way during a trek to a village with a few other teachers

“A lot of our students live in very remote villages, almost 120 km from the school. Since the terrain is hilly, you don’t get buses that connect to the villages. Most parents work as farmers or daily wagers, and struggle to send their kids to school. To visit the school for a parent-teacher meeting, they have to hire private vehicles, spending nearly Rs 2,000 for a visit alone. Hence, we decided to visit them,” he says.

The Unique PTM With parents in Vungvuh village

As the Principal, Robin noticed that very few parents attended the PTMs, and even when they did, there wasn’t adequate communication.

“I don’t belong to this part of Manipur, as my hometown is Moirang and we speak a different language there. Here, the dialect is not the same. So, when I first took charge as the Principal in 2016, it was difficult for me to communicate with the parents. Also, I noticed that the parents were out of their comfort zones. This lasted for almost two years. But, after we started visiting them, they opened up to us and began to express their expectations regarding their children,” he says.

When they visit the villages, Robin and a few other teachers travel by car. But often, after a point, the roads do not accommodate vehicles. So, they trek for 10-12 km.

“Because the path is so hilly, we park our car on the main road. We pass through forests while walking, and in cases where the villages are far, we stay there overnight. As per the local tradition, the parents welcome us with black tea and we discuss how things at the school can improve,” he says.

Inside St Stephen English School that was revived by Robin.

Over 25 villages need to be covered, and it takes almost a week to do so. But, Robin and his team have been doing that since 2018. Some of the villages include Songsang, C Zalen, Chongchin, Mouldak, Thingkeu, Aina, Kawlhen, Vungmol, and Konpi, among others.

Interestingly, until a few years ago, the school wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Robin.

“In 2015, there were 50 students in school and about 4-5 teachers. The saddest part was that there was no Principal,” informs the 35-year-old present Principal.

But since he took over, things have changed. Now, there are over 545+ students from Pre-nursery to Class 10.

During his visits to the parents, Robin also spoke to people whose children did not attend his school. “The parents said that they would send their children to school if cheap accommodation were available for them,” he recalls.

He took this suggestion upon himself, used his savings, and constructed a hostel, with a minimum charge of Rs 200 per student.

The dynamic, enthusiastic, and passionate Principal of the school discusses his journey with The Better India.

The journey towards becoming a Principal Sometimes these PTMs continue into the night.

Growing up in a village, Robin knew the hardships and understood the value of education.

“I was brought up in Moirang, which was a village at the time, 50 km away from the nearest city. After studying there until class 10, my father sent me to Imphal. After that, I went to Shillong and completed a BSc degree from St Anthony’s College,” he says.

Robin also wanted to complete his Master’s degree but started looking for jobs because of financial difficulties.

Robin with students during a village cleaning drive on Teacher’s Day

“I worked with a few private companies briefly, but it was difficult for me to support myself in the city. I was spending everything I earned, and hence, I decided to come back to Manipur,” he says.

One of four children, Robin’s father worked as a Police constable in Moirang, while his mother was a homemaker. Back home, there were limited opportunities for him.

“At one point, I worked as a Taxi driver. I wondered what I was doing with my life because my father had spent so much money on my education. I knew that I wanted to contribute to society. Since education had played such an important role in my life, I thought that becoming a teacher would be the best way to do it,” he says.

He joined a private school as a Math teacher in 2008 and worked there until the beginning of 2010. Later, he got a better job opportunity in Churachandpur and decided to move.

“As a teacher and warden at Soikolal Ideal School, my stay was free, and I was paid Rs 3,000, almost double of what I was earning in my hometown,” he says.

In 2015, the school had about 50 students. Now, there are over 545 students

In 2011, Robin even started a coaching centre for Math and other science subjects. He left his position at Soikolal Ideal School in 2013 and joined Grace Academy, another school in the area. His colleague had informed him of the condition of St Stephen’s School, which was on the verge of shutting down.

“The school was founded in 1998 at the backdrop of the conflict between two communities–the Kuki tribe and the Paite tribe. And the objective was to educate the children so that they could have a better future and not get sucked into the conflict,” he says.

He continues, “I always wanted to run my school. But, I did not have the money or the power to do this. So, when I heard that about the opportunity to save a school that was already in existence, I couldn’t let it pass,” informs Robin.

Robin then spoke to the brother of the proprietor, assuring him that he was ready to take charge as Principal and that would fix the disorganised management. He convinced the man and took charge as Principal in 2016, hiring more teachers and re-launching the school, after which a lot of kids joined.

Doing what’s best for the kids Inside the hostel that has been constructed for the kids

Visiting the villages gave Robin an insight into the problems the parents faced. When he learnt that many weren’t sending their children to school because of the lack of affordable accommodation, he decided to construct one.

He used his savings and bought a 3,300 sq ft plot in 2018. Even then, his savings weren’t enough to buy the land. So, he borrowed about Rs 15 lakh from landlords.

So far, he has repaid only Rs 2 lakh.

“I am very fortunate that my wife has been supportive through this. She even works with me at the school, and is equally passionate about providing the best education for the kids,” he says.

Regarding the hostel, his brother-in-law worked in the construction business and supplied him with the wood. “And about 25 parents decided to help us. With all our efforts, we were able to build the hostel in a month during the winter break,” he smiles.

The student in the picture receiving the ‘Most Promising Award’ was a three-time drop-out in the ninth standard. When it came to appearing for his board exams, none of the schools were ready to take him in. “I asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up. He said he wanted to become a musician. To motivate him, I asked him what kind of instrument he wanted and finally got the guitar. But, I told him that he would only get it when he passed the 10th board exams,” informs Robin. When the student passed the exam, the guitar was gifted to him.

The hostel comprises 20 rooms, each about 12 ft X 12 ft, often occupied by siblings who are more comfortable living together. There is also a study hall for kids to read and do their homework.

All five children of Boipu Neihsel, a farmer based in C Zalen, study at the school. His youngest is in the nursery while the oldest is in class 8, with all five staying in the hostel.

“Principal sir understands our hardships. Sometimes, we don’t even have Rs 100 travelling all the way is difficult for us. He continues to visit us to discuss how they can improve and what we want for our children,” says the 38-year-old farmer.

He also feels grateful for the hostel and visits his children about two times a month to provide them with money and other necessities.

Robin with his wife Thoi Pukhram, who has been there for him at every step.

“Principal sir was supposed to visit us this month too. But, because of the lockdown rules, that could not be possible. We are so pleased to have a generous and kind-hearted Principal who cares about our children like his own,” he says.

Robin is now planning his next visit to the villages ne and looking at introducing online lessons so that learning doesn’t stop.

“A lot needs to be done to shape future generations. Education can be a great vehicle for change, and it is what we need for a brighter future. I want to make education accessible to more children so that they can become leaders of tomorrow,” he says, signing off.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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