Small solutions for the apocalyptic atmosphere

Red Fort in New Delhi

A new study of global pollution shows that India’s air is the worst in the world (www.stateofglobalair. org/data). Masked Delhiites, caught in a relentless shroud of smog, have no choice but to inhale copious amounts of particulate matter. Somewhere, a quiet realisation has sunk in that the way we live is not safe. This awareness has led to a shift, with the thinking urban citizen attempting to make substantial changes to his own environment.

“Since 2015, we have planned over 250 balconies, terraces and small garden patches in the NCR,” says Kapil Mandavewala, 36, proprietor of Edible Routes, a specialised garden solution company. They offer quite a range — from vegetables to oxygen-generating plants, and creepers. Based on a large patch of land in Ghitorni, originally an artists’ collective where Vivan Sundaram has his studio and Bharti Kher is a co-owner, a walk through the garden is full of revelations on design and natural ecosystems: cabbages and broccoli grow together in chaos while tomatoes are surrounded by fragrant basil.

“This is called companion gardening. The basil repels insects naturally and increases the tomato yield,” explains Mandavewala. While his clients in highrises prefer to grow herbs, he has encouraged some of them to try growing patches of cabbage, onion and garlic as well. There are interesting looking flower pots that one is unlikely to spot elsewhere, with white pipes embedded in the mud. Mandavewala explains that the biggest quandary of the apartment dweller, who works and travels, is not being around enough to water the plants.

“Once you top these pipes with water, the pot can go for a month without watering as the moisture releases into the soil slowly,” he says. Edible Routes has pots with a nutritive mix of mud and manure made with a machine bought from a design student in Ahmedabad.

After returning with a science degree from the US in 2008, Mandavewala began tilling his family’s 22-acre farm in Gujarat and supplying vegetables to a few families in Jamnagar. A chance invitation from an NGO, Manzil, for a workshop on urban gardening led him to set up shop in Delhi in 2014. He took a 14-day course on permaculture, a system of agricultural and social design principles implemented by learning from nature. Applying it to an urban context came with its own challenges: the way light falls in a highrise, in a vertical slant, may not be conducive to all vegetables and oxygen-generating plants.

A special focus needs to be given to seepage and drainage of water. “It took me a while to understand urban spaces and explain to the clients as well that every space is capable of cultivating something,” says Mandavewala. For one home, he introduced Malabar spinach called poe saag as a vine, a popular variation of spinach down south but rarely grown in Delhi. In another, a family grew tori along their border walls.

The clients, meanwhile, are mostly enchanted by their gardens. “The joy of growing and cultivating your own food, knowing what you’re consuming, is something else,” says Mandavewala, adding that many of them begin with being terrified at the idea of taking care of several plants. One of the ironies of urban India is that farm land is acquired by people who don’t know how to farm; the ones who know want a job in the city, in an office.

A consultation with Edible Routes can cost anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 1 lakh, depending on the material cost, area and charges for executing the project. They also hold gardening workshops every month for people who want to experiment themselves.

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