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We are responsible for the air our children breathe – let’s fix it!

Manish Advani
13th Jul 2016
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It was in April 2012, when my son Dhruva had just turned three that he was faced with a severe breathing problem.. After consulting a paediatrician, we were told that our son would have to be on the asthma pump for life. On enquiring what we could do to help our son live a full life, the doctor recommended that we move out of Chembur. Our house in Chembur is bordered on one side by the Deonar landfill, which is now infamous due to the massive fire which broke out there earlier this year, and on another side by the refineries operated by Rashtriya Chemical Fertilizers, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. In addition to these surroundings, we have hundreds of trucks passing by our house carrying cooking gas cylinders, which I believe are supplied to the entire city of Mumbai, adding to the air pollution.

Image : Shutterstock
Image : Shutterstock

Time to make a choice: Play or Pay!

Within a few days of consulting the doctor, we packed our bags to move to Kandivali’s Thakur Village to avoid disaster. Our surroundings changed from refineries and garbage dumps to the green trees of the National Park, and everything in life seemed to be going right except with respect to grandmother, who felt she was deprived. We tried to convince her to move with us into the new neighbourhood, but after 50 years of living in Chembur, it was difficult, which we realized and understood.

Massive Deonar Fire impacts the City of Mumbai

In two years, my son’s immune system was much better and we moved back to Chembur so as to be close to our parents. Life was going well until January 2016, when the massive fire turned Deonar and Chembur into Hell. We were flooded with calls from anxious relatives enquiring as to how we could live in such hazardous conditions.

Do I want to be a part of the Problem or the Solution?

My mobile phone was soon flooded with messages requesting me to support protests being held by various local groups against the Deonar fire, and I was thinking aloud, “Do I want to be part of the Problem or the Solution.” When I questioned myself, I began to wonder who was at the root of the problem? At the moment, everyone is blaming the Government, pointing to the example set by other countries without recalling that other countries don’t have to manage the waste of the population size that Indian cities have to deal with.

I decided I would not be part of any protests, and at the same time I would not keep quiet. I did research on composting and soon began my journey of composting by leveraging all the possible organic waste which was otherwise going in to the garbage. Experiments began at a very micro level; in small pot, I collected some dry leaves which I mixed with the waste and some mud, after mixing them and getting the output which was something like a flour dough, I covered the layer with mud so that in a few days nature could take care of the waste. However, I soon realized that my family was not amenable to my experiments, which resulted in quite a bad stench and flies permeating the house. Shattered but unwilling to give up, I discovered a solution to this problem through the internet; on mixing one rupee Nescafe sachets with the dough, the resulting smell would keep away any and all insects. At the same time, it quickened the composting process as coffee is known to be one of the activators of composting.

Soon it was summer, and my wife began ordering coconuts. When the used coconuts were given to me for composting, I thought it wouldn’t be easy to take care of them through my regular method. This was when I thought of trying my luck at growing plants in used green coconut shells; it worked wonders! Instead of taking care of coconuts through the normal composting process, we made good use of them and soon my house was surrounded with plants. We have given away over 100 plants in the past few months. In addition to the above, my son’s teacher coincidentally asked the students in her 3rd Standard class what the process of putting waste in to the mud was known as? The only person who responded was my son as he had seen me composting, and he was asked to make a presentation using chart paper. This presentation was very well appreciated and was on the notice board for the rest of the school to view for a week.

Did we win because we focused on the Return on Investment?

Just because we took one step to change our lifestyle, we are today blessed with very good greenery around our house which is not a mansion but a 2BHK 650 square foot house in one of the suburbs of Mumbai. The first step we took was composting our waste, the second step was to turn all our normal grills in to box grills to create space for plants.

The third step we took was not to focus on plants which give the green effect but to focus on plants where the ROI was clearly visible. Our first move was to grow aloe vera, a bottle of which sells at Rs 300. We then followed this up with neem leaves, 2 to 3 of which we chew everyday to protect ourselves from illness, and lemon grass. We are now on a mission to grow everything which can possibly be grown under a roof. Thanks to that mission, we now have tomatoes, capsicum, cow pea, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, mint, basil, cody leaves, pumpkin, jasmine, perry winkle etc in our home. This past summer was my first in over a decade where my body had no rashes and it was only because we focused on organic living, without which I would have had to consume several bottles of Lacto Calamine and Avil tablets.

While I was diving deeper into the subject of home gardening, I came across something interesting: during World War II, millions of Americans planted gardens in their back yards, empty lots and even city roof tops as the supply chain was disrupted. People were even encouraged to can their own vegetables for the winter months to save commercial canned goods for the troops. Gardening was becoming a family and community effort, making cities sustainable.

If everyone across the country becomes part of the solution, we could avoid the garbage dumps in the city, we could improve the quality of the air by greening our house, we could improve our health by going organic, we could improve the quality of air as fewer trucks would come to cities to deliver goods. As the saying goes, “Small things lead to Greater Ends.” Based on my experience I can strongly say that taking one step towards being the change will allow you to experience the change that you wish to see.

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