Category: Real Talk

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Future On Tap

Image via DNAIndia

You probably know that India is home to over 1 billion people. And you probably also know that nearly 50% of those practise open defecation.

Infectious diseases are a result of poor hygiene practices, often because of lack of access to clean water. In 2010, the United Nations announced that the right to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right. But millions of people all over the country lack access to clean, potable water.

Solving a nation’s water crisis in a single day isn’t possible. However, there are several steps we can take in that direction. Example: the introduction of Water ATMs in the capital city, New Delhi.

What are Water ATMs?

As the name implies, a water ATM dispenses water. Think of it as a vending machine for clean and safe drinking water 24×7. The best part – these units run on solar energy. Additionally, these machines are powered by ultra-filtration units and Reverse Osmosis filters that further reduce the operational costs.

The Delhi Jal Board piloted water ATMs in partnership with the Piramal Foundation in 2014. Today, you can spot several water ATMs in various parts of the capital city.

Withdrawal can be made by using either cash or a smart “Sarva Jal” digital card issued by the Board. The cost of water from these machines is low- 25 paise per litre. Metro stations are a popular installation point because of the constant stream of travellers.

Water ATMS provide Delhi’s economically weaker sections (and thirsty travellers) with access to safe, clean drinking water at affordable prices. Also, these machines encourage users to carry refillable bottles, cutting down on the dependence on single-use plastic water bottles.

Water ATMs are taking off all over the country, with public-private-NGO collaborations (in various permutations and combinations) germinating and throwing up projects in areas like Moradabad, Berhampur (Orissa), Bangalore, and many other places.

I’ve heard many a dire prediction that the Third World War will be fought over water; well, we might just avoid that yet.


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Easy Decisions For A Hard Future

Photo credits: Niharika Singh Chauhan. New Delhi, 2016.

Nearly two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India ruled that only low-polluting green firecrackers may be sold for Diwali, and used only during stipulated time windows: 8 PM to 10 PM on Diwali. Provisions have also been made for Christmas and New Year’s.

With all due respect to the court, I question the refusal to impose a blanket ban on the sale and burning of firecrackers altogether. The air quality in cities is not going to be helped by anything less.

To begin with, the definition of ‘green firecrackers’ is unclear. As an average consumer, I don’t know what the pollution level of each type of firework is. So in this case, I would depend on the manufacturers, trusting them to obey the court order and sell me the less polluting version, right?

Right, just not this Diwali, an official from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee admitted.

Also, green crackers as Union Minister Harsh Vardhan describes them aren’t non-polluting—just less polluting. Because as long as you’re not emitting known carcinogens like potassium nitrate, or heart disease agents like barium, or aluminium fumes, the smoke and particulate matter and carbon emissions aren’t important! After all, magnesium is less toxic, so we shouldn’t breathing that, amirite?

Normally, I’d advocate baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, millions of drops make the mighty ocean, every little is a gain, and all that. Except that Rome was gutted by one day’s fire, and like Nero, we seem content to fiddle while our cities burn.


Image via Scripturient

I lived in Delhi from 2013 to 2017. The city would be routinely turned into a gas chamber for two days after Diwali. Your throat and chest would actually burn as you inhaled, wind-pipe and lungs and all. Your eyes would sting. All this, and then you’d have to contend with the exhaust from cars and buses on the road.

How do you look at a situation like that and say no blanket ban on firecrackers?

Ganukkachi in Assam has been making ‘less polluting’ crackers for 130 years now. The toobris produced are low on noise, no chemicals, no flames. To encourage manufacture, the state government has provided some infrastructure near the village. It’s slow going, but the hope is that this will boost indigenous products in the state.

We need to define standards for green crackers and to institute manufacturing units (or repurpose existing ones) for them all over the country. Livelihoods shouldn’t be disrupted, and the firecracker industry employs over 8 lakh people. However, a good chunk of these are children below the age of 14, who continue to be exploited in the sweatshops of Sivakasi despite the 1986 Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act. Moreover, most of the people working in the factories are members of Schedules Castes, because they’re ‘cheap labour’. How utterly unsurprising.

How ethical can it be to encourage an industry that routinely flouts child labour laws, workplace safety regulations, exploits the inhumane caste setup, and chokes the planet?

Spoiler: not very.

We need to ask ourselves what Diwali means to us. Is it just about firecrackers? I remember a time in my life when it was, but one year my family just didn’t buy any. No reason, except that we were all too old for it. You know what happened?

Nothing. There were just no crackers. Boohoo.

We’re not saints; we’re a bunch of kids who grew up and thought about what really matters. Diwali is a time for faith and family, and crackers have nothing to do with it. Sorry, Chetan Bhagat.

Religion is always a touchy subject in India, and never more than now. But we’re not asking for a decision on the Ayodhya Ram temple or a mosque; we’re asking for a decision that’ll allow us to breathe, to improve our quality of life. It’s disappointing that the Supreme Court hasn’t made the hard decision; taking the easy way out now will only make all our lives more difficult in the future.

Spoiler: we won’t be able to breathe. Good luck, folks.

Architecture and DesignEducate YoSelfGood News CentralReal Talk

Sacred Groves

Image via Facebook

Sacred Groves is a community in Auroville, India that aims to transform the toxic building processes employed in modern times. The project is an effort in an ecological development and a sustainable model of construction.

It is essentially an alternative housing solution for Auroville, which removes itself from the cement and concrete trap we call a house. It’s a completely off the grid housing system made with as many alternative materials as possible, ranging from construction debris to petrol hoses!

The chief construction materials at the Sacred Groves are Adobe and Lime. Organic materials such as straw and wood instead of cement and steel, make it possible to reduce carbon emissions.

Sacred Groves 4

Image via Facebook

Protection of wetlands

The project reuses construction waste with adobe, in an attempt to lessen the burden on wetlands. Construction waste is the largest in terms of volume in our country, and this waste is currently dumped in wetlands. Wetlands hold the highest ecological diversity and are essential to river water ecosystems. However, with the current trend of dumping in wetlands, the oxygenation of river water is under direct threat. Wetlands are neglected by the government because they hold no economic value. They are unfit to be built on or farmed on, and thus have become dump-yards.

All-Around Sustainability

A sustainable life is not achieved only by using green building techniques and materials; social and economical sustainability are key points as well. Social sustainability is about equality and sharing, and equal livelihood for everybody. By using materials like lime instead of cement, it benefits local producers instead of supporting a few who control the cement industry. It provides residents with shared facilities, like laundries, workshops, co-worker hubs and so on. It promotes a better social life and stimulate sharing of knowledge and resources among the residents.

Materials like earth or lime have no expiry date; on the contrary, cement-based constructions have a limited lifetime. When well maintained, the lifetime of the constructions at Sacred Groves will outlast cement-based buildings. At Sacred Groves, all basic needs are provided within the community and as such avoid the usage of money. Reusing or recycling of waste adds an additional economic value to waste.

Life at Sacred Groves – Community Building

The project is open to everyone who aspires to work towards a more sustainable world. Sacred Groves makes it possible to live in affordable houses which are healthy for the environment and its inhabitants.

The work at Sacred Groves is majorly powered by volunteers and some hired labour from the neighbouring villages. Volunteers are required to stay on site and build the houses along with managing resources such as food water and electricity themselves! If one is short on a chair or even a cup, they just go ahead and build one!

Image via Facebook

The morning routine starts with the sacred circle where everybody has breakfast together while collecting their heads about the tasks and team for the day. Volunteers are divided in teams for different roles in the construction process.

Sacred Groves aims to become an alternative to conventional construction. It wants to become a place for those who believe that creating unity in diversity is more than just words. A place that can proudly show the world that there is a better way to build and to live together.

Image via Facebook

Aviral Sinha is a Delhi-based architect with a deep interest in sustainable urban design. He was involved in the Sacred Groves project over the course of 2013. He holds an M.Arch from Milan’s DOMUS Academy. More from him here

Architecture and DesignEducate YoSelfReal Talk

City Of Dreams

Image via The Hindu Business Line

Capital cities worldwide have two sides: they offer the best of everything – restaurants, amenities, accommodations, public transport, education, employment opportunities and much more; on the other hand, you also spend endless hours waiting in traffic, cramped living quarters, noise, air, and water pollution, improper waste management… this list goes on.

Is it possible to create a world-class modern city in a developing country without the negative aspects? History rolls her eyes, but that’s what, Amaravathi, the upcoming capital of Andhra Pradesh, hopes to do. Yes, it’s a highly ambitious plan. But the plan is to build India’s first truly world-class city, a model for smart cities in the digital age.

The Do’s That Have Been Done

The Andhra Pradesh government has managed to rope in Norman Foster, one of the world’s leading contemporary architects, to design the futuristic city. Foster’s firm Foster + Partners is in charge of designing the city centre which includes the State High Court and Assembly, along with several buildings that will house the state administrative apparatus.

The design will incorporate the most cutting-edge research and methodologies on sustainable cities, adapted to suit Indian requirements as well as aesthetic and cultural sensibilities. The design takes into account Amaravathi’s Buddhist roots by designing the High Court building along the lines of a stupa. The cityscape inspirations range from Lutyens’ New Delhi, Cental Park in New York City, and London’s Trafalgar and Duke of York Squares- all culturally cosmopolitan cities in their own unique ways.

Expect lots of green spaces, large shaded walkways that get people to rely on their legs instead of their wheels, use of solar energy panels throughout the city, dedicated cycle tracks for intra-city transport, electric vehicles and a great deal more.

Foster’s team has got the initial plan right by focusing on sustainable development. The site is on the banks of the river Krishna, which ensures a reliable freshwater supply. 51 per cent of the cityscape is envisioned as green space and another 10 per cent as water bodies (including waterways paralleling the major roads to facilitate water transportation).

Additionally, the state government has brought in Surbana Jurong, a Singapore-based urban consultant team. They are focused on creating jobs and homes for all of the city’s citizens. Surbana Jurong is also a consultant in several smart projects across India.

The new capital builds on the ancient idea of Navratnas – nine different areas, with each denoting a specific functionality. Some of the areas include – education city, tourism city, health city, financial city, government city, knowledge city, and sports city. The city development will benefit six neighbouring towns like Vijayawada, Guntur, and others creating an urban—peri-urban landscape, emulating Delhi and the surrounding NCR region.


In a nutshell, Amaravathi aims to emerge as India’s first fully-sustainable city, with world-class infrastructure and efficient resource management.

Will the Andhra Pradesh government be able to pull it off? That remains to be seen. But plans and funding are both there, so hopefully this will turn out to be just as magnificent (and smart!) as it sounds.

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Peak Connectivity

Photo by Américo Alves

The Himalayas are fascinating: the youngest mountain range in the world, formed by the collision of the Indian subcontinent with mainland Asia millions of years ago; full of breathtaking biodiversity (whose rapid thinning is… yes, a post for another day), locus of the highest peaks on the planet… and home to millions of people.

The human population of the Himalayas are religiously and culturally diverse: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists- all these people (and more!) call the Himalayas their home.

And as with any place on the literal edge of the political map (at least in the case of the Indian Himalayas), a major chunk of the population does not have the advantages of Internet. The isolation of the Indian Himalayan population is more than just physical- many, many areas are cut off from the rest of the country (and the world) due to the absence of an internet connection- the access to the world of information on the net, as well as the communications systems it offers, have long been out of reach.

For the residents of Lingshed, Ladakh, though, this is no longer the case. a group of volunteer engineers from the non-profit group Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) installed a solar-powered microgrid at the Lingshed Monastery. The venerable monastery is 900 years old, but it has entered the 21st century in style.

lingshed monastery 2

Photo by Erwan Fruch

Each microgrid consists of a 250-watt PV (PhotoVoltaic) panel, a pair of 12-volt lead-acid batteries specifically designed for solar-powered systems, and around thirty 3-watt LED light bulbs.

According to Paras Loomba, head of  GHE Using direct current (DC) rather than alternating current (AC) makes sense for an off-grid setting like Lingshed, “The main power grid runs on AC, but solar panels run on DC. So, if you can run the LEDs on DC, then you don’t lose efficiency in converting to AC.”

AC, DC, what does it matter? (No bad puns about the band, you’re welcome) The point is that the good people of Lingshed (and trekkers that visit the area) now have the ability to stream music by bands like ACDC. (Aaaand I lied).

Information and connectivity create two things that we often take for granted- opportunity and agency. Leh-Ladakh figures in the imagination of the country as a tourist destination, or a shooting location thanks to Ranchordas Shamaldas Chanchad aka Phunsukh Wangdu aka this guy:

phunsukh aamir.jpg

Aamir Khan in ‘3 Idiots’- Image Source

Just look at the background. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

But the Ladakhi narrative should be more than just about being a pretty backdrop for a Bollywood hero. When you have information and connectivity, you can draft a new narrative for yourself- this is agency. And this is what Lingshed now has. The chance to script their own story- not for the screen, but for themselves.