The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What is ESG?

ESG is a term that is gaining prevalence in the west to today - mostly among financial market players. Fund and portfolio managers, as well as investors are running a sprightly eye of certain criteria that a company reports on, before making their investment decisions. ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance indicators that a company can choose to benchmark against and present the facts to all stakeholders. While it is neither mandatory in USA nor Europe more and more companies are reporting on parameters relating to ESG to demonstrate a company’s overall responsibility in these matters.The European Federation of Financial Analysts Societies (EFFAS) has listed the areas that ESG should relate to, and has even evolved a set of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure corporate performance.

The nine listed areas shed great light on what modern responsible corporations will need to be demonstrative of in the next decade. They are:
1) Energy efficiency
2) Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
3) Staff turnover
4) Training & qualification
5) Maturity of Workforce
6) Absenteeism rate
7) Litigation risks
8) Corruption
9) Revenues from new products
Source: Céline Louche, assistant professor of corporate responsibility, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Belgium; and the Financial Times Lexicon.

As can be expected there is no mandatory or voluntary reporting of these facts in India. While a few companies write notes on their corporate social responsibility mandate in their ‘Annual Reports’ and Websites, they do not address important governance and ethical issues like Corruption and Absenteeism. Some would like to argue that the economic counterpane in India is a wrinkled spread and these issues are difficult to iron-out, much less admit to. Besides, how do you report on a matter such as corruption? However, these parameters seem to have been put there more as deterrents as opposed to any admission of such practices.
The Financial Times Lexicon also draws attention to: “The UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) provides a voluntary ESG framework for companies and funds, from which investors can make informed investment decisions that relate to sustainability and governance practices.” As more nodal agencies prescribe a set of ESG guidelines more sectors in industry will begin to adopt these measures. It will be of critical importance to the third-world and India to see how these measures percolate down the corporate river of obfuscation and misreporting.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Romancing the Mangosteen

Mangosteen at the Ooty Market
Our Nilgiris project is essentially an agri-community which will be producing food-crops on site, apart from other livelihood initiatives. While we are trying to identify the land and discover what all we can grow we take excursions into the local markets in the Nilgiris to get ideas. On a recent trip to Ooty we chanced upon the vegetable market which is a riot of colours at this time of the year. Yellow zucchini, red radish, purple cabbage, orange carrot, blue beans and the usual greens were there in profusion. The fruits were not far behind – reddish-orange rambutan, brown sapota, and the royal mangosteen was present in a dark purple blush.
I must admit that I had never tasted the mangosteen .Though I had heard that it was an exotic fruit; I had neither seen a picture nor was prepared for its purple exterior. The vendors who called it ‘mangustan’ did not make the connection easy but finally I had a mangosteen in my hands. Incidentally, mangustan is not incorrect at all; the Spanish people call it ‘mangostan’. Shared one with friends right then and there, and all three of us were blown away by the tangy sweet taste. I immediately decided to explore if it was possible to grow this fruit in our backyard, i.e. The Nilgiris Project.
First, a little bit of history and folklore. It seems that the mangosteen (Garcinia mangostana) originated in the Sunda Islands and the Moluccas. It is very popular in Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Philippines, and other parts of Asia as it thrives on tropical weather. There is a fantastic website ( which charmingly lists both the documented history and the folklore of the mangosteen. The Brits, as usual, claim that they were the ones to popularize the fruit in the west. It seems that the fruit was first grown in a heated greenhouse in England by John Ivison, the gardener of the Duke of Northumberland, in 1855. David Fairchild, plant collector and botanist extraordinaire, coined the expression “Mangosteen, the queen of tropical fruit’; which, of course, has been subsequently used to describe fruits such as the mango, breadfruit, pineapple, peach and many others, by quietly dropping the ‘tropical’ from the epithet. There are tales of how Queen Victoria offered to pay 100 pounds to anyone who could provide her with access to a fresh mangosteen...but such tales have no corroboration whatsoever!
There are many who have tried to describe the exquisite taste. I will use the words of two intrepid explorers who had the privilege of tasting the fruit and have left behind memorable quotes.
" abundant white, juicy pulp, soft, sweet, slightly acidulated, and with a delicate, delicious flavour, which recalls that of a fine peach, muscatel grapes, and something peculiar and indescribable which no other fruit has." [Odoardo Beccari]
"The mangosteen has only one fault; it is impossible to eat enough of it, but, strictly speaking, perhaps that is a defect in the eater rather than in the fruit." [Eric Mjöberg]
But that is not all. It seems the fruit has a ton of health benefits. The pericarp (rind) when dried and ground is an antidote for dysentery, fever and a variety of other illnesses. Modern medicinal research indicates that the naturally occurring xanthomes (polyphenolic compounds) in the fruit have antioxidant properties which are efficacious for treating hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases and thrombosis. The list goes on; it is anti almost any disease of your choice! Wow, this fruit seems to have it all.
Learning about the health benefits only added to the resolve of growing it in our own project. But the last part of my investigation literally proved that I was barking up the wrong slope! The trees take at least seven years to bear fruit [and that is not the problem]; it is grown in India but is restricted to a few areas in the lower slopes of the Nilgiris (300 m to 1000 m) and in the Malabar and Tirunelvelli districts. Hmm....our project is likely to be located at around MSL 2000 m! Another case of ‘so near and yet so far.’ Well, I’ll just drive downhill when I feel that urge to sink my teeth into a luscious mangosteen pod.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What sets us apart? Clues to what makes communities sustainable- Water

This post marks the beginning of a series with one common theme..... highlighting the areas of living that set us apart from the way/s we lived in the past (and in some traditional/rural settlements that still persist), and which also mark us as unsustainable communities.
It is quite remarkable that factors that brand us as unsustainable, are perhaps more due to circumstances, living in these times, rather than one of a dearth of choices that can keep us from self destructing. I hope to cover, with some help from others here at IGH, a few cross sections to illustrate what sets us apart, and perhaps throw up some answers in the process. What makes us so dependent on those many supply chains of water, energy, food, etc that any sudden break in any of these result in a literal collapse of our world?.
This series shall cover some of these aspects/themes by looking at them through specific topics.Here is the first.
Water and communities
A kund in Himachal Pradesh
A quick glance at water in today's context. Let us start by looking at the water infrastructure- piped water to our homes from neighbourhood level water utilities, which are supplied by central treatment facilities, which in turn are fed by riverine systems. Cut to the past, say over a 100 odd years, and we find that none of this applied, to the extent that we did not even draw our water directly from rivers (or lakes for that matter). Even in the most dense of cities, Old Delhi, Old Ahmedabad, Old Bangalore, Old Benaras, historical towns of Tamil Nadu, hill towns and villages across the country, coastal settlements... all drew their water from the ground. What's even more interesting, is that this held true even if they were right next to a river or stream!! The forms may have varied, but the common fact that all these instances had local solutions.
Let us move on the next level of differences, how we deal with water conduits and bodies- concreted and tarred surfaces, concrete lined drains, reclamation of low-lying areas and ponds, and a plethora of other measures to drain out any rainwater to prevent 'flooding' and reduce diseases like 'malaria'. Cut to the past, and we have earthen and other permeable pathways, ponds to hold water, percolating swales and enough bio-matter that would help retain surface moisture and also helped prevent erosion.
Take a look at our current lifestyles- everyone has access to water indulgent luxuries from bathtubs to rain showers.... we even bathe our modes of transportation. Such a luxury simply did not (or, could not) exist. We are transfixed on the appearance of water in our bathrooms, lobbies and garden landscapes, instead of considering efficient usage. Consumption today, needs some serious introspection. We have moved on from consuming what we need to thoughtlessly catering to our whims. We can start by monitoring, and progress quickly to an equilibrium stage between what we sow and what we reap (so to speak).
Then are the hidden water aspects. Also known as virtual water, this is understood best as the total water that goes into anything, be it a product, a crop, an activity. For example, a cup of coffee is said to take about 40 litres of water to make!! Similarly, cereal, processed goods, clothes, the construction of buildings, roads, etc. all consume a significant amount of water. You could find tonnes about this on the net.... just try and make an estimate of your water footprint, and you will be astonished!! In the past, keeping the circles of dependency small, and the substitution of high energy industry with craft and some rather ingenious zero energy technologies, meant that their water footprint was much smaller. Surely, there are some lessons here.
The benefits of the earlier water equation are compelling. For starters, it was significantly lower in in energy consumption, both in building this water infrastructure and its operation. Traditional and historic water systems did not mean the release of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or, toxins into the ground.... today it does. In those traditional/historic instances, all controls were with the community and users. At the least that meant that one knew why we did not have water on a particular day, and one could prepare for that. Today, to simply inform the masses of issues related to water supply is a challenge, one which is also phenomenally resource consuming..
A Reverse Osmosis water treatment plant
The decentralised set-up also meant that growth of populations did not mean adding stress to, and therefore, an upgrade of the water infrastructure. Importantly, the past system meant constant recharge, and lower consumption, assuring more water for all. Currently, each of our 50 plus 1 million population cities, rely on individual sources of water!! Imagine the burden on those systems. What is our strategy to replenish those sources??? None exists. In these traditional alternatives the costs were significantly lower, and there was no need for extensive treatment at both the distribution and consumption ends. Today, we dump tonnes of chemicals (chlorine) to control germs, to curb suspended particles, and even to control odour. What's more, every home either has or is eyeing an RO like filtration system... one which spews out a minimum of 2 litres of extremely turbid water to give you 1 litre of filtered water.Where do you think this RO reject is heading? Down your drains into our ground water aquifers, or, dumped into the riverine systems from where we source our water in the first place!!

In the world of today, we have ignored our connect with the sources of water. Rivers are too distant to comprehend, so what do know about what it takes to source this water... laying the infrastructure, pumping costs, treatment, etc. We have ignored the health ground water table, considering what we can get from this unseen 'golden goose' (figuratively speaking) as spoils of existence. It is only now that we have begun to rediscover rainwater harvesting and recharge, something which happened by default in the past, and something that many of us are adopting only to comply to government law. But to be truly sustainable, we have to break these bondages of dependency on external inputs for water. It is also a fact that we are born into these times, and therefore find it difficult to understand such a (lesser known) past. That is the extent of our dependency and modern day conditioning. About time we break those shackles and take control!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ecovillages are catching on

Image: graur codrin /
Ecovillages are sprouting up all around theworld. These isolated clusters of habitation are an expression of people electing to live in communities that are sustainable, i.e. they attempt to generate more than they consume, and almost always have educational, spiritual, social, environmental, humanitarian, and philanthropic goals woven into their long term charter. The interesting aspect of an ecovillage is that it can be started with any large singular goal and then evolve into a community participating in a broad range of local or global issues. Professor Karen Litfin of the University of Washington, Tacoma, has written a stellar paper titled “A Whole New Way of Life: Ecovillages and the Revitalization of Deep Community,” which analyzes and discusses the roots and history of the Ecovillage movement and mentions how GEN (The Global Ecovillage Network), since 1995, is helping ‘share and disseminate their knowledge.’ She also mentions the names of a few large and small communities in the network. A few large ones are Sarvodaya in Srilanka, Colufifa in Senegal, The Ladakh project, and ‘ecotowns’ such as Auroville in India and the Federation of Damanhur in Italy. Amongst the smaller one she mentions Earthaven in North Carolina and Huehuecoyotl, Mexico, besides many others. All these communities have different sets of goals, but are similar in the fact they have ‘self-sufficiency’ at their core and believe in ‘participatory development.’ While ecological aspects are given prime importance, these communities are as much focused on the ‘social aspects of community life.’ There are critics who point out that these small clusters of living have no impact whatsoever on the world ecology or sociology and are merely ‘escapist’ solutions to large global issues. These are, of course, excuses of people who never want to make a beginning in anything. Creating small examples of holistic living and educating others to follow cannot be but good in the long term for all. Looking for large solutions to address our large-community problems is certainly difficult and usually ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions rarely succeed for long. Small universes of habitation, giving importance to local issues and opportunities, may find us the larger solution we are all looking for.