Small Drops of an Ocean (ID-24)

Small Drops of an Ocean

 Participant ID -24

Medhajournal, UAE


When I was growing up, I was fed [up] with a meal time story about the poet- saint ThiruvaLLuvar,* the author of “ThirukuraL”. He   lived in Tamil Nadu, India, more than two millennia ago. He supposedly had his meal with a needle and a bowl of water by his side. The rice that was scattered around his plate was deftly picked up with the needle, dunked in water and eaten. Thus, no grain of rice was wasted. 

Why did he have to make life miserable for a poor kid who came long after he did?  

I thought bitterly as I was asked to eat without spilling even a few grains of rice while eating. 

This anecdote-lesson on wastage is still with me. 

In this essay, I would look at the broad issues of sustainability from an Indic angle and discuss how relevant the concepts are for the present scenario.  

I would define the resources of our planet as our common ancestral property entrusted with us for safe keeping. People of every generation can be defined as guardians/custodians who have to pass the wealth on to the next set of custodians. 

It’s a capital fund whose interest should be used with due regards to the principal.  

It isn’t the property of any one generation. 

The Then 

The era of industrial revolution was followed by a rapid urbanisation, an urban sprawl, and a population explosion. In the last decade of twentieth century, the World saw the rise of consumerist culture.

The concept “Buy what you don’t need, to “help” the economy” hasn’t helped individual economies in any way.

Bigger, better TV sets. Smaller, better mobile phones. When one is acquired, the list doesn’t necessarily get shorter. 

The Now  

The second half of 2008 that has proved that recession is worldwide and has a trickling effect. Sustainability concepts, in my opinion, have a lot of relevance to recession.  

Those communities or companies that lived and spent within their means are less affected by recession than the ones which didn’t.  

“Use resources carefully, as there is a tomorrow. For what we use now, we are only caretakers but not absolute owners”. 

This concept was the driving force behind the lives of ordinary people all over the World, until they were touched by the “spend, spend” culture. 

We now painfully understand the differences between renewable and non- renewable energy sources. We are told that the World population has reached unsustainable levels already and we shudder to think what would happen if this pace keeps up. 

The Indian Angle 

Indians are people who save more than they spend and this means that they automatically conserve resources more than a spending community does.

A firm belief in people power rather than machine power has helped Indians conserve more. 

Ancient Indian concepts,  “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam “[The World is family] and

“Yaadhum oorey, Yaavarum keLir” [All places are home; All people are kith and kin]

have a lot of relevance to the concepts of sustainability . 

Food Issues 

Every community in India has a list unwritten dos and don’ts about what to eat, when to eat and how to eat based on what food is seasonally available in their region.  

For example, certain deep -fried food items [fried sin!] are limited to some festival days and not made on other days of the year.  

Doing manual work and the habit of fasting, must have helped considerably in conserving food and also in saving people from fancy diets [Fruits only –for- a -month and a near -death experience consequently!] and gymnasium visits. 

As for eating meat, people do not eat meat on all days. There are religiously significant days when meat is avoided. [which amounts to more than fifteen days in a month]. 

Abstinence practiced on those days may have helped in population control. 

When we avoid eating food from all over the World at all times of the year we save fossil fuel and we wouldn’t need crash diets.  

Community Cooking 

People who cook, generally specialise in a dish or two that they consider their

“pet dish “.Such culinary artists can mass –produce that dish which can be canned/bottled and sold to other members of the community. This can build community bonds. [and also help harried working mothers].When things click, they can even market that product outside their community. 

Food items like papadams* *are made that way with the help of hardworking womenfolk who work from near their homes. These papadams then reach other homes across the Seas. 

Milk is produced and distributed by the same “co- operative society” method in India. The strategies can be studied and the methods will work anywhere.  

Waste Not, Want Not  

Wastage is minimal where consumption is minimal.  

As in India, old clothes, if in a good condition, instead of being thrown away can be given away. If not, they can come back in a “mattress stuffing” avtar. Dish clothes can be re- born old clothes. 

Excess food can be shared with neighbours, friends and animals around .In

a sense, they are all part of a very large family. 

Each individual can make a difference, as small drops make an Ocean. 

Scarce resources should be used sparsely and abundant ones should be used responsibly. 

Communities can meet in their neighbourhood park [which they all help maintain] and share excess food stuff with each other .The excess food can also be sent to the needy. 

Throwing usable food items in to garbage bins should be avoided. 

Being told as a child that “One worm-lifetime for every grain you waste!” has been a great help. On a lighter note, by this calculation, yours truly has a million and ten worm lifetimes before her, [all earned during childhood] and does not intend to increase this number. 

Communities can also exchange old school books, toys and furniture through their newsletters, message boards or just by word of mouth. 

This author exchanges old school books and toys with friends. This teaches young children about the value of resources, and also brings in to picture the “extended family” making the children richer by the experience. 

Garbage Bin Control 

The more processed food we buy the more plastic and paper waste we generate.

People can vow to cut down their waste generation by, say, half on certain days of the week.

Consciously controlling waste generation has a positive effect on the environment. 

Available resources should be used in a responsible and careful way, and wastage should be avoided or minimised. 

Governmental role, Connectivity Strategies and Communities 

Governments can rework the slab system for energy bills, [beyond a certain level of usage, more cost per unit]. A carrot and stick approach to the building industry and the automobile industry would mean a lot in sustainability issues.  

The concept of green buildings should be promoted and guidelines should be periodically reviewed. The uses of certain environment friendly materials and techniques have to be made mandatory. 

The same is applicable to the automobile industry too.  

The efficient, all- connecting, people- friendly public transport system in

India, [it’s not without faults but it still works fairly well] can be studied by those countries whose citizens have to own a car to get anywhere. 

Where it isn’t available, communities can run share- car services and also have people pick up essential things from supermarkets for the families of their friends. We save a lot of resources by minimising shopping trips by families.  

This strategy is being successfully used by some families this author knows, where people take turns to buy crates of vegetables from wholesalers every week [as they are considerably cheaper] and divide it among themselves. 

The positive side effect is that they cut down on the plastic waste that becomes unavoidable when small quantities of vegetables are bought from retailers. 

Shopping for the “extended family” makes strong bonds and this adds up as the unquantifiable human factor. That’s a greater positive side effect. 

Use and Use  

Manufacturers of factory -made goods, electronic and otherwise, should make goods that would last, and not make goods that are “use and throw”.

Governments should enforce stringent quality control laws to achieve this end.

Neighborhood retailers can encourage such goods by stocking them. Residents can form action groups to make this happen. 

Building It Physically 

Many developed countries now have green building codes that address many issues from site selection up to materials and techniques.

But many of these concepts seem to have been in vogue in agrarian economies,

As people whose fortunes depend on not just themselves, but also on other humans, animals, plants, and the elements of nature, people of agrarian economies learn to live in friendship with the entire environment around them. 

Each community will have to build and sustain their physical environment based on their unique set of requirements and resources and not try to emulate a design solution meant for another scenario. 

Study Vernacular 

For this, a study of what people built in the past and an analysis of why they built what they built are necessary. Where possible, the design consultants should interact with the community closely and find new solutions for the design problem based on this analysis.

Accountability of People

At the building level, the use of some systems may involve training all adult users of a building, which, in the long run, would be a good investment. 

Conservation of Water Resources   

Water water everywhere, not a drop to drink” may well be a reality very soon. 

We now know that, in future, great wars may be fought over water.

There is a story about how a person was tested for frugality, which, in ancient as well as in today’s rural India is a virtue.

He was asked to walk through a muddy field and handed a quantity of water that was just enough to wash his feet with, as he reached his house.

He used the water frugally but cleaned his feet thoroughly with the water given to him and passed the test. 

At the domestic level, we should curb the wastage of water and invest in rain water harvesting techniques voluntarily.

The temptation to pave all available site area with impermeable hardscape has to be resisted.

Apartment owners can also insist that site works are taken up to restore permeable area in the site which will help maintain the water table.

Communities can raise these issues to demand that the Government takes this up as the top priority at the street/city level too.  

At the neighbourhood level, local authorities need to “liberate”   water holes from encroachment and the natural and man made water ways [varaththu] that feed them.


Citizens can form an action group to demand that their common property [the water bodies] is liberated. 

A cursory glance at a KuLam, [a man- made water body which is a part of the local temple], in a dry district in South Tamilnadu showed that there were carefully designed inlets that led water from the rest of the town in to the water body. 

Seen here in the foreground is one of the inlets that feed the KuLam. 

This can be studied and applied at the neighbourhood -level planning. 

The sense of community and conformity to strict rules that apply to every member of the group helps in conservation and eventually the community becomes a sustainable one. 

Oor Kattupaadu [Community rules] and Habitat Preservation 

People in a village in Tamilnadu don’t burst fire crackers during the festival of Diwali, as they feel the sound would scare the migratory birds that visit them seasonally.   

Atiti devo bhava [Divine is the guest] is a way of life, even if the guests turn out to be winged creatures.  

This helps preserve the habitat and as everyone is a stake holder, it benefits every member of the community and the future generations as well. 

This “community pride” principle can work in the urban settings too. 

In some suburbs of Chennai, the residents vie with each other to green their surroundings.  

Personification of rivers and mountains has helped in their conservation. This is a cultural issue and may not be applicable to all cultures. But a healthy sense of respect for the “common property” can certainly help conserve natural resources. 

Lessons can be learnt from the past and from communities that have successfully implemented sustainability principles.  

To the Roots  

A successful sustainable community is long ranged in vision, unselfish in attitude, and strong in their belief in the “We” word rather than the “I” word.   

The same concepts can be re- learnt and applied to, in any place. A sense of “place pride” can be developed and even transient residents of the place can be made to appreciate this factor.  

What we need is a paradigm shift in thinking. Years of what has been learnt has to be unlearnt.  

We have to go back to the roots, analyse issues and develop new solutions for our generation to suit the needs of the present day.  

All is not lost and the planet can still be saved from disaster. We seem to have woken up just in time.  

If we act now, we can certainly prolong the life of this wonderful planet which is our common home.


*Thiruvalluvar  was a celebrated Tamil poet who wrote the Thirukkural, a work on ethics in Tamil literature.

**The papadum is a thin South Asian wafer, sometimes described as a cracker or flatbread.

From Wikipedia.

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