Legend of Irumbai and Sadhana Forest

When  you travel Pondicherry from Chenni or Bangalore via NH 66, you will cross a place called Irumbai, which is around 6km ahead of Auroville. Irumbai is famous for its temples which were built around AD 1000 – 1500. Irumbai has an interesting legend of Kaduveli Siddhar, a famous yogi who lived in the area some four to five hundred years ago.

According to the legend, Kaduveli Siddha was performing harsh (hatha) yoga under a peepal tree for days. The heat of his body was so intense that no rains came and the people were exposed to hardship and drought. The situation was so bad that it finally came to the ears of the King, who ruled from Edyanchavadi village. No one dared to disturb Kaduveli in his penance as he chanted the mantra of Eswara, and soon an anthill started to rise up around him. Finally a temple dancer, named Valli, devoted to the Lord Shiva, decided to do her best to get the attention of the yogi, and to rescue the King and his people from the adverse effects of his tapasya. Valli was successful in transforming the Yogi to a family man. Meanwhile the God of Rain was relieved from the torture he felt from the heat of the yogi’s tapasya, the rain fell in plenty, and the people were happy once again. In order to celebrate this event the King ordered a big Puja to be held at Irumbai temple, which was to be followed by a classical performance by Valli in which she would act out the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, in the form of Nataraja. During the performance, however, one of her anklets fell off, and she started to lose her balance and rhythm. Kaduveli, who saw the Lord Shiva in Valli, picked up the anklet and put it back on her feet. This exposed him to the ridicule of the King and court for having touched the feet of a dancing girl, and he was heckled and jeered. In the rage he invoked the Lord Shiva to come out of his temple and prove his innocence by causing a rain of stone. Immediately the lingam in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple exploded, and wherever its fragments fell became desert. No greenery will grow around these spots, including a crater at a distance of three kilometres from the village, still to this day known as “Kaduveli”. The King got frightened and begged the pardon of the Siddha, bowing down to him with all his entourage and pleading with him to quench the effects of his anger and curse. This appeased Kaduveli, who, repenting of his anger, said that what was done was done, but that in the future, people from far-off lands would come and make the desert land green and fertile again.

It is strange this peace of land was lying there for all these years with lunar landscape till two great souls, Yorit and Aviram Rozin started their reforestation work around year 2003 on 70 acre of arid, eroded land in the outskirts of Auroville. The land resembled Martian landscape with red soil, where not even a blade of grass was visible. Here is a picture taken in 2004 from Sadhana Forest archive that will give you some idea of what it looked like.

Yorit and Aviram was not the first person who tried to rejuvenate this place of land. Some one thought the place looks like African Savana and tried to plant Acacia. They hired a plane and seed bombed the place. Acacia seeds are hard to germinate, in the arid land these seeds were just wasted and were lying dormant for years.  Yorit and Aviram started their work with focus on restricting land erosion and water conservation.  Acacia is a hardy plant that can survive in near desert condition. For the same reason Acacia is also known to be a potentially invasive species, which is taking over grasslands and abandoned agricultural areas worldwide, especially in moderate coastal and island regions where mild climate promotes its spread. Australian/New Zealand Weed Risk Assessment gives it a “high risk, score of 15” rating and it is considered one of the world’s 100 most invasive species. Extensive ecological studies should be performed before further introduction of acacia varieties, as this fast-growing genus, once introduced, spreads fast and is extremely difficult to eradicate.  Some species of Acacia contain cyanogenic glycosides, which, if exposed to an enzyme which specifically splits glycosides, can release hydrogen cyanide in the “leaves”. This sometimes results in the poisoning death of livestock. It is not clear, even to the current volunteers of Sadhana forest on what ecological impact assessment was performed by Govt. or by the people involved before this alien species from Africa was allowed to be planted in such large quantities in this part of the world which does not have the bugs and other plant species that can resist its invasion and live with Acacia symbiotically.

Sadhana forest team has decided to live in the forest.  They take it more as a social issue rather than a technical issue. They live with the trees and rest of the inhabitants of the forest. As a society and in harmony with nature. The idea is to feel and discover the problem forest faces and solve these on the go.  Sadhana forest team organizes regular trip to the forest on Fridays. The idea is to educate people about conservation and living harmoniously with nature. The trip starts with toilet training. At Sadhana forest they use dry composting pits for toilet. Here our pre-tour guide Shiva is explaining us on how to use the toilet. Dry composting pit use very little water. This is very important for villages (and cities) with water shortage.

We aim for toilet for every house hold. Some of the villager has to walk kilometers to fetch a bucket of water. If we ask people to use this bucket of water to flush shit, then the idea of toilet for each home also goes down that drain. For those area where water is scarce, we need toilet that use very small amount of water. At Sadhana forest they use 1 liter of water for shit. The WC that we use normally is put on alternate usage.

For washing dishes they use ash and organic soap. Any left over food goes to composting pit. Dish is dip washed in four tub.

One may tend to question the need for subjecting oneself to this hardship. I think the idea is to develop that keep sense of scarcity of water in the mind of every volunteer so that they are in tune with the problem being faced by the trees.

As we walk down the narrow forest trail, we are stumped by speed breakers. These are quite big and we were wondering which municipality has planned them.  Very soon we came to know the speed breakers are meant not for us, it is basically meant for rain water. As rain water flows it gets restricted by these breakers and reduces the run-off.  The team uses various types of technique to ensure the water that falls on ground is retained with the forest.

There are two ponds in the forest to retain the retain water

These ponds hold water during monsoon. This helps to keep ground water level high during dry spell.

Here is a bund created to retain the water within soil and reduce runoff.

Here another voluenteer and current director of the Indian project explaining the water conservation measures to tourists.

To plan trees they have come with a innovative technique of drip irrigation. Drip irrigation sounds good, but when you try to practice it on 70 acre of land with not so obvious economic benefit the idea looks daunting. They use these plastic bottles with a wick to bottle feed the baby plants. These are required till the root reaches ground water and the tree is able to survive on its own.

Beside water consumption they also practice eco-friendly method of cooking. The stoves here are rocket stoves that burn wood very efficiently and without smoke. Just one small log of 1 inch dia is enough to prepare food for 20 odd people with these stoves

Roofing sheet that we saw is made of compressed polythene/plastic junk.

The picture on the left may look very familiar to people from Africa. Let me assure you, this is what Sadhana forest looks currently.

With all the water conservation measures working and some trees tended with baby sitting care, the piece of land is now ready for life. The Acacia seeds that were air dropped earlier are now sprouting every where.

 The place looks like Africa with this thick Acacia cover.  Sadhana forest team has decided to take advantage of the situation as it unfolds.  The trees provide much needed bio-mass and water retention capacity. That help other trees to grow at present.   The team is aware of the danger that an alien species may pose. Acacia do not fare well with storm that is very frequent in this coastal region.  Currently the plan with Acacia is to take advantage of what is available but plant more trees that are of local origin. There is bound to be some trouble in cohabiting with an aggressive species like Acacia this drama of life and yoga will unfold layer by layer as the team passes through different phases.

Here you see two fully local people that’s me and my wife – Courtesy a fellow traveler from UK, who was kind enough to click the shot.

Here we are in the auditorium-cum-living quarter of Sadhana forest enjoying a dinner served by the Sadhana forest team.  This big hut is made of bamboo and palm leaves. Lights are powered by solar cells. There is no fan, but we realized it after a long time. With natural ventilation from these tall roof fans are not required.

This goes to show simple life is not necessarily full of hardships, all we need to do is to question what is important for us in life and what is not. There is a urgent need to Value Engineer our life style to reduce the environmental cost of our life style. We may find that it is still possible to live harmoniously with nature that will sustain our lifestyle. If such life style is sself sustaining, we may need to ponder the need of such luxury.  While in Sadhana we saw a film titled “No Impact Man“, based on a book by Colin Beavan. This is about a family that changes their lifestyle to get zero carbon footprint over an year, while living in Newyork.  While I do not fully subscribe to the asutre lifestyle being projected and suggested, I do think there is a need to rethink and apply our innovation to reduce our carbon foot print. Sadhana team has been able to reverse it all together, my good wishes for them in their journey, but this is a social issue that require a bit of effort from each of us.

Kidneys of Kolkata

Kidneys of Kolkata

Posted On Saturday, May 30, 2009 at 12:11:16 PM

The East Kolkata wetlands fed by sewage water is a picture-pretty place
Divya Fernandez  
Kolkata and its unending supply of legendary fresh fish-did you ever imagine this had any connection with the sewage generated by this overcrowded city? Well, its true – Kolkata has the world’s largest collection of fish farms fed by sewage water!  Large areas of vegetables are grown on garbage and paddy fields are irrigated by sewage effluent.
All this at the East Kolkata wetlands at the edge of the city – a place few people, even Kolkatans, have bothered to visit.
When I first heard about it, my reaction was, “Oh, must be a mucky, smelly swampy place.” When I actually went deep into the wetlands, walking along the bunds, guided by Bonanidi who has been here hundreds of times and fought a case for it back in 1992, it simply took my breath away.
You have to see it to believe it. And it didn’t look dirty at all. A network of small square cut ponds, edged with water hyacinth, paddy fields soaked in water, all interspersed by bunds, little bamboo bridges, tree-lined canals. You forget you were just half an hour ago in a big bustling city like Kolkata.
I felt humbled, but I was truly humbled when I saw people – yes human beings – living in an intricate relationship with these wetlands as if their life depended on it. It is their forefathers who helped build the wetland as it is today and has been nourished from generation to generation.
The region is part of the mature delta of the River Ganga and the wetlands are the interdistributory marshes in the delta.
The streams which were once active became inactive after the shifting of the main river and consequent loss of headwaters from the Hoogly. The tidal action of the Bay of Bengal earlier caused salinity and tides in these lake areas.
The earliest known accounts of these Salt Lakes go back to the year 1748 when it was a vast area, teeming with fish and birds and extending right up to a mound known as Dumduma, near which Burmese and Mug traders arriving in boats used to anchor.
The East Kolkata Wetlands as it is known today comprise nearly 115 sq km. Using the purification capacity of wetlands, Kolkata has pioneered a system of waste disposal that is both efficient and environment friendly, at no extra cost. The cost of setting up a sewage treatment plant today would be about Rs 400 crore and require Rs 1,000 crore in yearly maintenance.
Kolkata, the second largest Indian city containing 14 million people generates roughly 680 million litres of sewage. One-third of the city’s sewage and most of its garbage is converted into 20 tonnes of fish and 50 tonnes of vegetables.
This provides for about 60 g of fish  and 300 g of vegetables daily for about 5 lakh people.The wetland foliage has spongy roots that can accumulate heavy metals in their tissues at 100,000 times the concentration in the surrounding water and also house nurseries of fish among them.
Eichhornia crassipes or water hyacinth found here, is known as the Jekyll and Hyde of the wetland world because though it helps remove toxic materials in some wetlands it is often a costly adversary in others because of its phenomenal growth. In the East Kolkata Wetlands, the fishermen prevent the hyacinth that edges their bheris (The fishermen use gates to direct the foul smelling sewage into their tiny shallow water fishponds called bheris) from clogging the ponds by ingeniously and simply holding them back with bamboo fences. 
Rare mammals like the Indian marsh mongoose, small Indian mongoose , palm civet, and small Indian civet are found in and around the area. Threatened reptiles like the Indian mud turtle are found. Birdwatchers regularly come to watch the local as well as migratory birds that visit the wetlands. More than 40 species including coot, grebe, darter, shag, teals, cormorant, egrets, gulls, jacanas, snipes, tern, eagle, sandpiper, rails and kingfishers are seen here.
One-fourth of Kolkata’s total requirement of vegetables reach the city with minimum cost of transport. Fish reach the stalls straight from the auction market – there is no expense on cold storage or fish feed, Yet Kolkatans are ready to pay a good price because they can see how fresh it is.
Not many city dwellers realise that these wetlands are the lungs and kidneys of Kolkata. Over the years, people have been eyeing this area as free space – whether for building an eye hospital or as a place for old cows and goats!
They even wanted to build a World Trade Centre in the middle of the wetland! In 1992, the Kolkata High Court designated 12,500 ha of the wetland as a conservation area, after the judge himself visited the area. Like I said, seeing is believing!
The court order prevents changes in landuse. Yet developers encroach on its edges and development speculation never ceases to dog the area, with an active promoter-real-estate-developer lobby waiting in the wings. 
Now Dipayan Dey, environmentalist and LEAD India finalist, through the Indian chapter of the NGO SAFE is working on a project that aims to restore to restore and develop the East Kolkata Wetlands so that this precious habitat remains intact and also help sustain the communities that depend on it.
Keeping in mind that the beauty of the wetlands attracts many tourists who come for bird watching, boating, picnicking and photography, with the help of the local community, they have put together thatched huts, which are rented out to visitors. Women of the fishing communities have been trained in hospitality and catering and the families will provide these services to eco-tourists for a reasonable charge. In this way the ecosystem is taken care of while also sustaining the community.
This area is internationally recognised as the only Ramsar entry from India for wetland wise use and the only one that is by the side of a city. The people of the wetlands do not care about all this, they only want to be allowed to coexist with nature. Though Kolkata may not be aware of its lungs and kidneys, for these people, it is their very life.