Back To Basics

Updated: Oct 1 2006, 05:30am hrs
Cooking up a raw deal
In the last decade or so, fine dining has been getting redefining organically. There is a new revolution of sorts brewing up in millions of kitchens owing to increased global awareness about health, food safety standards and environmental issues et al. They call it alternative farming, to cater to the huge demand of organic products be it fresh and processed food, clothing, cosmetics or herbal supplements.

The world trade of organic products is huge. The present market of $26 billion is expected to grow to $31 billion by 2010, says Dr P V S M Gouri, advisor, Organic Products, Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). And if the projections of International Trade Centre hold true, the market would then hit $46 billion in Europe, $45 billion in the US and $11 billion in Japan by 2010!

India, in the meanwhile, is reaping its share of organic benefits with the help of rice, tea, coffee, spices, honey, medicinal plants, cashew and fruits and vegetables, walnut and sesame seeds. The present export share, valued at Rs 9,533 lakh by APEDA, is only expected to rise as the European market grows at an average of 5% and the US by 20%. Further, an allocation of Rs 100 crore has been made in the Tenth Five Year Plan to promote organic farming and to set up 50 model organic farms across the country.

APEDA has set national norms for organic production and processing, accreditation criteria for certification bodies, a national logo, Organic India, and regulations to govern its use. These have been formulated in consonance with international standards such as Codex and IFOAM, says Gouri.

However, the regulations are yet to be strictly implemented. Its clearly evident from the fact that a lot of products available on the shelves carry neither the logo nor the certification. Yet, the trend is easy to discern. Even as people are losing faith in the pesticide ridden, non-organic, genetically modified food products, the organic wave, understandably, is currently on a high tide. Clearly, there had to be a limit to housewives frantically washing rice and pulses in salt water, waiting for the mangoes to ripen under straw or, worse still, boiling everything to 150 degrees centigrade to kill the invisible enemy.

But what edge does the organic chain offer For one, it offers unrefined and unprocessed foods without additives so as to preserve the fibre content, essential vitamins, minerals and micronutrients. Nidhi Sahai, a nutritionist with Max Healthcare, says, Organic food is free from herbicides, pesticides and chemicals, and is environmentally as well as nutritionally healthy. Even introducing a single organic product in your diet can benefit a lot because they are rich in anti-oxidants. However, a lot of people tend to overcook food, which is not advisable because it destroys the very nutritive value which is its plus point.

Anubha Mamgain, a 27-year-old executive with Infosys, switched to organics when she was close to getting paranoid about anything she ate. Says she: It was scary. I stopped eating anything raw no salads, no fruits. I used to peel huge chunks off every vegetable. Others like Delhi-based homemaker Sonali Mitra shifted to organics to lose weight. She says: They are healthy, fibrous alternatives to the synthetic food we have been consuming all through. Unpolished brown rice, oat muffins, ragi biscuits and muesli are among her favourites. It is about shifting to the raw from the refined.

Delhi-based Fabindia introduced its organic range in 2004. Says Jashwant Purohit, head of business, Organic Food: Our range of teas, preserves, seasonings, pickles, whole grain pastas, dried fruits, granaola and sauces has been a big hit with our customers. Sourced directly from farmers, NGOs and select private companies, Fabindia is planning to expand its range.

Navdanya is another name synonymous with the organic movement. A mission which began with protecting the small farmers by promoting ecological farming and fair trade, it has so far trained over two lakh people in organic farming. Besides the regulars, it offers an exotic range of natural sherbets and squashes like rhododendron, lemon, ginger, mint, litchi, mango panaa, etc. It also offers eco-friendly festival colours during Holi. Theres more, though. Navdanya also completes the seed-to-table experience through its Slow Food Caf. Set up in Hauz Khas and Dilli Haat in New Delhi, everything on the platter here is made with organic ingredients.

Dr Vandana Shiva, Navdanyas founder, explains the trend: Our turnover has been doubling every year which proves that our hard labour and social commitment is finally paying off. We have already opened a store in Mumbai and early next year well expand the Slow Food Caf chain as well either on our own or through franchisees.

Similarly, Sunita Shahney started Ahumkaara in Kilapuk, Chennai, four years ago as a health and speciality store and turned it into an organic store soon. Shahney, a self-taught nutritionist, explains the move: I realised the need for a retail facility for organics products. But it has been a difficult journey. More so because of the low levels of awareness about the health benefits of organic eating. Unless they are hit with some diseases and a doctor advises them to switch over, people seldom adopt it voluntarily. Ahumkaara also tried opening an organic caf but had to shut shop. As I said, it was too early, reasons Shahney.

The premium price tags of organic products could be one reason why some people resist turning organic despite acknowledging its health benefits. Mumbai-based animation designer Shweta Mahapatra, for instance, finds organic products expensive to be affordable on a regular basis. When I worked out my kitchen budget on organic lines, it hit the roof by 60%. For me, only an occasional indulgence is affordable. Srikant Ram, who set up The Eco Nut, an organic food shop, in Chennai, after a successful 12-year stint in Kodaikanal, justifies premium pricing: The prices are high because, unlike other farmers, we dont get any subsidy. Secondly, there is no large-scale network for marketing and distributing organic products. But despite these lacunae, we are managing a growth of 20%.

N K Gupta, a herbal expert who set up Vedantika, a brand to sell organic products, says he has but only one mission in life: to create awareness about organic and herbal products. He seconds Rams opinion: People feel that herbal oils are outrageously priced a few milliliters for 100 bucks. But not many know that just a drop of it is enough for 25 litres of water. And the therapeutic benefits are immense. Vedantika too offers an exhaustive range mint herbal tea, instant aloe vera drink with tulsi and ginger, and essential therapeutic oils of lavender, lemon grass and peppermint, etc.

Apart from the health factor, it offers a variety that non-organic foods do not. Consider this: Ahumkaaras speciality is fresh organic aloe vera and wheat grass, in addition to a five-seed instant snack, which is a mix of pumpkin, watermelon, sunflower, cucumber and soya. Also, there is nutritious buckwheat for atta.

The unusuals on Eco Nuts platter are the hi-fibre red rice, Stevia leaf powder sweetener, apart from the range of home made foods like black rice bread, honey oats loaf and chilli cheese bread. Navdanya has finger millet, barnyard millet, buckwheat, pearl millet and foxtail millet.

Ah! Clearly organic here spells exotic. Difficult to resist, isnt it

Organic building blocks
Concrete is pass. Make way for the mud. Back to basics is perhaps the most simplistic way to put eco-friendly organic architecture in perspective. Imagine a city where it takes you no more than seven minutes to walk up to the bus or tram stop from wherever you are, where all buildings are highly energy efficient, and the wind, the sun and biomass the only sources of power! Where the entire citys waste is recycled and composted! This is no utopia. It is already happening in China. The Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporations Dongtan, the worlds first purpose-built eco-city on these lines, would soon be a reality.

Indians too are following. Slowly and in their individual capacities. Let the experts indulge you. Architect Eugine Pandala constructed a 2,500 sq ft mud house in Kollam, Kerala, for V N Jitendran seven years ago and shot to fame even as cynics said the structure would soon collapse. But the house and several other eco-friendly projects that Pandala has since executed have stood as testimonials of the technology that he keeps on revisiting with confidence. Noteworthy among them is G Suresh Kumars 13,000 sq ft studio, Revathi Kalamandir, in Kazakhootam, which even boasts of a sound-proof room. And if you thought Pandala only makes mud walls, youre mistaken. Even the bed and interiors here are designed with mud.

The trend is yet to catch on because a lot of people are not aware of the technology. There is little rationale in questioning mud-related technologies. They can be traced deep into the history of civilisation. The Great Wall of China, 7.5m high and 9m wide in places was built of Rammed Earth and stone in 246 BC. Thiruvananthapuram still has more than 100-year-old mud buildings, says Pandala.

A home of Earth is simply a constructed environment that grows from the earth, yet remains as a natural, sustainable environment. There is no smell of synthetics, no sound of mechanical systems and no rattling when the wind roars, claims Pandala. Mud is clearly a good option energy-friendly, safe, recyclable, economical and it also does away with mining of river sand and quarrying of stones.

Also mentionworthy is Anil Sekhris 2,400 sq ft bungalow in Mumbai. Architect Malak Singh Gill did not sacrifice even a single tree for it. With credible innovation, he used junked railway wooden sleepers for doors, cupboards and window frames. He also left the walls unplastered so that they could breathe. The construction industry is one of the most polluting in India. It is time we understand that eco-friendly does not just mean ecology friendly, but also economy friendly, says Gill, while on his way to Gujarat for another project. Gill, a student of Laurie Baker, had a clear vision: To use natural elements to maximum advantage... bamboo roofs, and mud as mortar instead of cement, etc.

Of course, critics cite the high maintenance costs of such structures and say the price tag is way too steep to promote eco-housing on a massive scale. Not everybody agrees, though. I save 66% on the AC cost by switching from traditional methods of cooling down to 16 tonnes from 52 tonnes. And you get paid back not just economically but also in terms of lifestyle, defends Satya Sheel, MD, Suzuki Motorcycle India Pvt Ltd. A non-architect, he researched for a year-and-a-half to design Chaupal, his 12,000 sq ft eco-house in Mehrauli, and went on to win the Holcim Awards 2005 for it.

The idea is simple: to save energy and scarce natural resources on all fronts. Using vacuum tube to heat water does away with solar cells, either double glaze the windows in the south-west direction where the noon sun hits hardest or simply plant a tree outside it, earth air tunnel for pre cooling outside air, put censors in the room which can detect and switch off all electrical equipment if no one is around, put a brick in your cistern and you save a litre of water on every flush, adds Sheel. Percept DMark Ceo Preeta Singh got architect Prabhat to design a 100% eco-friendly home for her in Delhis posh Vasant Vihar. That is how I wanted my home to be as close to nature as possible, she says.

Asserts Mili Mazumdar, fellow and convenor, Griha, Teri: If one adopts energy saving technologies for homes, the initial cost just goes up by 10-15% and the pay back time is as less as three to four years. Teri, which specialises in end-use applications, has executed several sustainable habitat projects for ITC, Ranbaxy, IIT, and Doon school to name a few and also provides training to independent people.

Indeed, eco-techniques abound in the country. These include fly ash, terracotta tiles, ferro-cement roof, passive solar design in the buildings structure to capture sunlight, RCP slabs, recycling plastic waste for building products, agro waste recycling into building material, etc.

For many the experience serves as a learning process. Ecolodge Apani Dhani in Rajasthan is a case in point. Its architect and owner Jangids endeavour was more on ideological grounds than driven by profits. Says he: There are flaws which should have been avoided. For instance, the roof is conical and that traps the hot air inside. Even the main windows are south-west facing, he says. Sums up Sonali Rastogi, director, Morphogenesis Architecture Studio, Mere use of material doesnt make a project green. The planning of the project itself has to be energy efficient and environmentally responsive.

Back to basics! Point taken

New commoners, old clothes
Clothes make the man, said Mark Twain. Naked people have little or no influence on the society, he added as an afterthought, perhaps. In the early 1900s when he first gave the world these pearls of wisdom, he couldnt have possibly imagined the ramifications of his words in the 21st century.

Indeed, clothes today dont just reflect ones style quotient. Its also about making an ideological statement. Yes, apparel ideology! From the Gandhians who swear by Khadi to the libertarians who celebrate minimalism, Leftists sporting Che, eco-fascists who advocate vegetable dyes and naturalism, to the socialists who promote the bourgeois line of production.

Says 56-year-old Gandhian Shravan Kumar: Throughout my life I have worn only Khadi. I inherited it from my father, and have passed it on to my son. It is a source of strength for me. But does his 23-year-old son Kush, a student of modern history in Delhis Jawaharlal Nehru University, find Khadi equally happening Of course, its cool! he says, adding: More than anything else, its so comfortable. In fact, a lot of my friends wear it just to get that intellectual look.

Not many, who have worn Khadi ever in their life, would contest the comfort factor because its woven such. The soft twist imparted by the hand maintains the yarns hairiness to an extent, and that is what makes it so comfortable. And the loom used in weaving Khadi interlaces the threads in a manner that allows maximum air to permeate to the body and soothes it better than any other fabric. In fact, Ponduru Khadi, a special variety, is produced from wild cotton found in the mountainous regions of Andhra Pradesh and is hundred percent organic. Blended with natural vegetable dyes, the organic fibre is also popularly called the perfect green fabric.

Since Khadi deals in natural fibres like cotton, silk and wool, is spun and woven by hand, it can boast of being 100% natural. The muslin Khadi is so fine that six metres of saree can easily pass through a ring. It is unlike handloom and mills which receive cotton yarn blended with regenerated cellulose fibres, explains G Hussain, director, publicity, Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC).

Figures suggest that Khadi is, at last, gaining in popularity, both in India and abroad. In its new designer line avatar, its sales have nearly doubled in the past five years to Rs 13,105 crore. Even other apparels made from organic cotton are fetching strong returns. The global organic cotton product sales increased by an estimated 35% annually, from $245 million in 2001 to $583 million in 2005 as per the Organic Exchanges Spring 2006 Global Organic Cotton Market Report. It further expects the global organic cotton product sales to skyrocket to $2.6 billion by the end of 2008, reflecting a 116% average annual growth rate.

Theres more to this revolution of sorts. Gandhis philosophy of non-violence has given the world another fabric, Ahimsa Peace Silk. Developed by Maneka Gandhis NGO People for Animals in the summer of 2002, Ahimsa Silk is made not just by eco-friendly but also non-violent procedures.

Curious The conventional process of silk production requires the killing of hundreds of thousands of silk moths in their pupae stage by heating and boiling before reeling yarn from them. Ahimsa Silk does it the non-violent way. Here, the adult moths are allowed to emerge alive from the cocoons and then the silk yarn is spun from the open-ended (eri) cocoons and from pierced tussar and muga cocoons that have been used in breeding cycles or those found in jungles. For tropical, temperate and Muga tussar only sorted pierced cocoons, remnants from the breeding cycles, are used. Natural and azo-free chemical dyes further make the fabric organic. The NGO has trained tribal weaver groups in Assam, Gujarat, Nagaland, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal to produce silk by this method and offer a wide variety shawls, stoles, yardage, saris, furnishing, knitwear, garments and rugs.

Ena Panda, a lecturer of French in Delhi University, was told about it by a colleague and couldnt resist buying a tussar stole. Till then, Dastkar and Fabindia were the only two labels that figured in her wardrobe. It is certainly for the keeps. One, it makes me feel good and then it has a raw appeal that never fails to impress, she says. Next, I am saving for a saree, she confesses, adding that the cost is slightly higher than its traditional counterpart.

Expensive is a subjective term. Peace silk process is non-mechanical and involves a lot of human labour right from collecting the cocoons to spinning the yarn to weaving the fabrics. This does influence the pricing. However, our clients share our ideology and are willing to go that extra mile to maintain the ecological balance, defends Leelavati Sabale, director, Ahimsa Peace Silk (I) Pvt Ltd. She adds: Ahimsa Peace Silk is hand-spun, hand-woven and 100% natural and eco-friendly. This fabric can breathe and hence can be used in all seasons.

Though, Ahimsa Peace Silk fabrics/products are not available at the retail level yet, they do honour individual requests. Recollects Sabale: A year back, a young lady approached us to make the angavastram and veshti for her fianc. We made just two sets for her and at the wedding, her entire family was immensely pleased and satisfied.

And then there are others like Swadesh Singh, a journalist with the BBC, who wears Fabindia products to support the cause of Indias dying crafts and promote rural employment. Says Singh: It is comfortable and so affordable I get a decent shirt for as little as Rs 315. And though there have been instances when the colours of Fabindia kurtas and shirts have faded, I still swear by them. Such rare instances of complaints apart, Fabindia today has grown into an impressive network of 10,000 master craftsmen who celebrate handwoven and handcrafted natural material.

Another technology that deserves mention is Joy of life, a method developed by Advantage Nature for dying and processing natural fibres with the help of Nano-Bio-technology principles. It uses Joy of Life to manufacture garments with natural anti-microbial agents, using only natural dye herbs like Methi Dana, Harad, Manjith, Anar Chilika, Tesu, Dolu, Katha, etc. Says Rajiv Rai Sachdev, MD, Advantage Nature: Our aim in developing this technology has been to avoid synthetic and chemical products which not only disturb our ecology but also harm us. He adds: We have got a positive feedback from organic store chains in the US, Germany and Japan. Sachdev desists from divulging more details on the technology or place of production, though.

But at least there are positive developments to look forward to. Touch wood even as soya, bamboo and jute fibres sweep you off your feet!

They say that when it comes to exploring newer lifestyles, some of the most fascinating ones invariably lead backwards. And so it is, not surprisingly, when you talk of alternative lifestyles. Call it a profound rediscovery, if you must, or more modestly, making lifestyle choices... differently. But the bottomline is that it is about going back to the roots, to traditions and to nature.

And so we have gur instead of refined sugar, recycled handmade paper in place of the glossy white, Khadi replacing synthetic fabric. Even corporates are trying to cash in as well evident by telecom giant Bharatis launch of Fieldfresh to make India a global outsourcing hub for safe food.

Even as global brands like Nike and Levis launched their ranges in organic cotton to cater to the growing market recently, closer home, Ahimsa Peace Silk was born. Its a unique technique where adult moths are allowed to emerge alive from the cocoons and where silk yarn is spun from open-ended cocoons. Even His Holy Dalai Lama is a big advocate of this non-violent fabric.

Its a trend that is taking the world by storm. Acclaimed actress Shabana Azmi prefers to wear only pure cottons and pure silks! Says she: Pure cotton and silks are aesthetically very appealing. They fall very well, are easy to wash and maintain. Designer Rohit Bal wants Khadi to be made the national fabric of India. It is symbolic of the nation. It has a rich history behind it. There is an immense sense of pride and relevance attached to it. It is also very conducive to our weather.

There is a growing awareness among people. They realise that the best way of being agents of change is through what they consume. More than any other form of protest, changes in consumption send a very powerful signal to global corporations that are increasingly playing a major role in the choices that we make, feels William Bissell, managing director, Fabindia.

Its the same when it comes to organic food, too. Talk of organic eating and you have Organic India, Organic Bounty, Magic Mart, Conscious Food, Kettle Food and several other brands fighting for the shelf space to get your attention. Former Miss India and model Nikita Anand got hooked to organic food when she saw her roommate, Miss Trinidad and Tobago, at the Miss Universe pageant having nothing but organic. Hers was a 100% organic diet. During the pageant I realised that exercise is effective only when its coupled with healthy eating. Since then I too switched over.

Alternative lifestyle is about choices: from wearing organic, using natural personal care products, building green homes and even going on eco holidays to rainforests and backwaters. At the end of it all, it is not just about following a fad. Alternative lifestyle is about making a decision: it could be born out of concern for environment or out of mere comfort. But as long as it is different, dont stop short of embracing a new life.