Indian Sustainable Practices: Part 1

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Among the millions of species, we humans have now taken over the planetary driving seat and we determine the course of Earth’s journey in the future. We have now entered the Anthropocene – an era where humanity is shaping the entire biosphere. The unprecedented global challenges that we are facing today has not only been caused due to technological and economic development, but also due to irresponsible and reckless consumption. The great acceleration of human pressure on the environment  began in the mid 1950s with 3 billion people and now we are 7 billion of us. It is not just numbers that is responsible for the damage, but the affluence and extravagance that was celebrated by those who got on to the bandwagon of industrial revolution. In this context, Sustainable Development Goal 12 which calls for Responsible Consumption is linked to all other SDGs and it is this goal than we as global citizens can directly contribute towards.


India has the dual challenge of including its entire population on the ladder of development, at the same time ensuring that the development is within the planetary boundaries. This complex task cannot be achieved only with modern technologies, but with the wisdom of our collective cultural tradition. Indian tradition is the only ancient yet living tradition. Ancient, yet dynamic and constantly changing with the times and relevance. Indian tradition has always been against over consumption of natural resources or over indulgence in the senses. This has been emphasized on a personal level as “Aparigraha”. Aparigraha translates to non – greed or non – avarice. It is the opposite of parigrah, and refers to keeping the desire for possessions to what is necessary or important, depending on one’s life stage and context.


अहिंसासत्यास्तेय ब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहाः यमाः ॥३०॥

  • Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 2.30


In the Sadhana Pada of the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains the five Yamas, or disciplines that one must exercise for personal growth. Aparigraha is listed as the fifth Yama (discipline). When the individuals in a nation uphold this principle, there can be accelerated economic development without over consumption. Excess on one side always leads to deficit on the other side. In case of excess, charity was practiced instead of hoarding. Bharath was known as the land of  “Daana” or offering. The first Yama is Ahimsa or non-violence. Non-violence has been looked at from the perspective of all beings on earth and the Earth itself and not from a human perspective alone. Exploitation of nature and natural resources, inflicting harm directly or indirectly on mother Earth, which leads to loss of habitat for others forms of life, and all other ecological damages that we cause today also were considered Himsa or violence. People in India revered and worshipped the rivers, mountains, animals, and Mother Earth and  consciously aligned their lifestyles in such as way as to cause little or no harm to the the beings around them.


If we observe closely our own customs, we can see that sustainability has been the basis of our way of life,  and has been seamlessly woven into our daily activities.


Eating from a Banana leaf:

In most parts of India, food is served on a Banana leaf. This has been prevalent since ancient times as it is hygienic and easily disposable. The leaf has to be rinsed with water and it is not necessary to use soap. This keeps the food free from chemicals. When hot food is placed on the leaf plate, nutrients emanate that further enrich it and adds aroma to the food. Natural antioxidants called polyphenols found in many plant based foods are abundant in banana leaves. Banana leaves are preferred over other leaves since they are big, thick and can carry several dishes easily. They also have a natural wax coating which makes them waterproof. Curries and gravies can be served on them and they won’t become soggy. Once the meal is over, it can be disposed directly in the soil or in the compost pit and it turns into soil within a few weeks.

On special occasions and large gatherings, when food is served on banana leaves, it can truly save earth from a lot of plastic pollution. When we consider the amount of resources and energy that goes into making  disposable styrofoam plates and the ecological consequences that they have after disposal, eating from banana leaves during festivals and functions can save earth from getting strangled by millions of plastic plates. From the perspective of health, wellness, as well as ecological footprint, banana leaves are the best choice for plates.


Eating seasonal and local foods for low food miles:


Food miles is the measure of the distance the food has travelled from the point of production to the consumer. Food that has travelled a longer distance before reaching the consumer has higher food miles and has consumed more fuel along the way. To get a better understanding of food miles, consider a person living in Southern India, say Tamil Nadu. Fruits that can be grown in Tamil Nadu are mangoes, guavas, watermelons, bananas, etc. If the person in Tamil Nadu consumes these fruits, the food miles will be some few kilometers to a hundred kilometers. Consuming apples grown in Himachal Pradesh would be about 2000 food miles and Washington Apples would be over 9000 food miles! The carbon footprint of such foods consumed at very far distances from its place of growth is very high, as transportation is almost always using fuel thirsty flights or ships. More food miles also means the food is preserved using chemicals and much older than fresh foods. This can be very damaging to one’s health if consumed regularly.

Weekly Santhe: Local market

“Locavorism” or eating local foods grown within a radius of 100 miles has been recommended in Ayurvedic texts as one of the best ways to stay healthy. Foods that grow in the same environmental and climatic conditions as our body are better suitable for our body. Unlike Western societies where most of the foods are sourced from Supermarkets where imported foods from all parts of the world are shelved, in India, weekly Santhes (markets) are very popular. Here, local farmers can come and sell their produce directly to the consumers. This practice supports local farmers and gives them a better price for their produce by eliminating the middle-men and also leads to savings for the buyer.

Traditionally, Indian homes had what is called today as “kitchen gardens” and fresh organic vegetables were available in every home. Seasonal vegetable cultivation was practised and people grew vegetables organically in their own backyard. This ensured food security when cash was not readily available. Women and children were nutritionally provided for with these vegetables in the lean season, when food grains were not easily available.


Such localised sustainability practices go a long way in contributing to the larger global goals of sustainable development. Our traditional knowledge has the power to complement modern scientific knowledge, with local precision and nuance.

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