Goddess of Green Chemistry and Climate


When the vice-chancellor of our university declared that they had come up with their own anthem “Rasayan Devike” (Goddess of Chemistry), I thought he was crazy. Who does that, I said to myself. Until now.

It has been five years since I graduated from this university. Today, I found out that the concept took birth to spread awareness about green chemistry – how old chemistry could help clean up its act with newer greener chemistry.

There’s actually a statue of the goddess near the vice-chancellor’s office. Makes me wonder the length to which the university must have gone to engage people in environmental protection. What were the odds of being ridiculed? 100%? Probably, because I heard no one talk about it the way I’m doing it now. I have a newfound respect for this.

Chances are students barely knew what it was all about. It may have been nothing but a stunt for them. Not to me anymore. History is filled with mythological characters. People have devised ways to celebrate these characters and what they symbolize.

Which takes me to another train of thought. Have you ever heard of the God of Climate? There are many weather gods – wind, thunder, rain, lightning. None for Climate. As NASA defines, “The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.”

So, what am I proposing, you ask? I’m proposing a God of Climate, wait, no – a Goddess of Climate (it’s just more fun that way). I don’t know how this is going to help, but hey everything begins with an idea, right?

Interview with Damandeep Singh, Director at CDP India

Corporate Photographer London

Today’s blog post is an interview with Damandeep Singh, Director, CDP India. Daman has worked for over two decades writing and researching on environment and development issues in India. He worked as an independent consultant and journalist primarily on environment and climate change issues working with ERM UK, Worldwatch Institute, The Climate Group, Bureau of Energy Efficiency and Suzlon Energy. Prior to that, he was heading Research and Programme Missions Divisions of the National Geographic Channel for five years.

I’ve always been fascinated with National Geographic and what it does. As a 90s kid, I grew up watching the Nat Geo Channel. How was it working with them and what did you do as a Researcher?

Daman: Glad to hear it. I was part of the research team of the Channel and not the Society so there’s a slight difference. And in India, the channel is managed by the Star bouquet of channels. It’s actually now almost entirely owned by Fox/NewsCorp, I believe. Earlier the editorial and the research control was with the National Geographic Society. But the programming and the marketing was with Star in India or Sky in the UK. All in all, it was a great learning experience interacting with the research team in Washington. In India, the focus was mostly largely on marketing and distribution. I was responsible for maintaining the scientific rigour and the integrity because there were very strict standards, practices and processes for research for these programs.

Did you work on a particular subject?

Daman: No. When I joined National Geographic, I joined them to manage their website. This was the time of the dot-com boom everybody thought there was a lot of money to be made in websites but that didn’t go as per plans. Later I got more involved in research and other outreach and mission programs. We did research on whatever was required such as Ganga, so-called witches, tigers in Ranthambore, whatever the programs were about. We made sure that all the facts were in order. National Geographic programs conform to strict fact-checking and sources are all encyclopedic in the sense that whatever fact is quoted in a program it has to be verified and has to be authenticated by at least two high-value sources.

Are there external sources?

Daman: The internal National Geographic source is, of course, the first preference. The other sources ae Encyclopedia Britannica and others that are of academic value. I also ran a program for the mission division that these days would be classified under CSR: An educational program where took National Geographic films to government school children in rural and remote regions of Uttarakhand. This was in the pre-cable TV era and most schools had no electricity. So we actually also had to carry a smaller Genset and a projector. We showed NGC films to school children and even constructed activities around those films. We ran that for about three years 2003 to 2006, after which I moved out of National Geographic and it is now run by my former colleagues.

At the beginning of your career, what motivated you? For example, for me as a kid, as far as I can remember it was mainly these three things – waste, ozone layer depletion, and pollution. So, what triggered you?

Daman: When I left school in 1984 I wanted to study Psychology. Later that year there were anti-Sikh riots in Delhi which were quite traumatic. Being born in a Sikh family we had to shift our home and it was quite difficult at the time. I began reading a lot of newspapers and was attracted to journalism which was shaping how things are reported, how things are perceived. I decided to become a journalist and enrolled in a course with Times of India School of Journalism. I worked as a journalist for about two decades. I started in Times of India where I was on the desk and slowly began reporting on a little bit of politics. I soon got very disillusioned with political reporting because the politicians said one thing one day and within the next few weeks they had completely changed and moved on. At that time I came across a couple of NGOs like Kalpavriksha in Delhi who were working on conservation as well as supporting the tribals in their struggle against the Narmada dam. I met the tribals visiting from the valley in Delhi and then actually travelled in the Narmada valley with Medha Patkar for about a week which was eye-opening. I’d never done anything like that.d I have a great admiration for two women in India who have done phenomenal work to bring out the development issues in India – Medha Patkar and Aruna Roy. Aruna Roy was an IAS officer who gave up her job and started the Right to Information (RTI) moment. The whole RTI act actually came about by the actions of a group called MKSS. Arvind Kejriwal and others actually started out by being part of this movement and then they branched off into politics on. Social movements interested me and then environmental issues. I began writing about wildlife, forests and development issues. It also allowed me to travel and to do that it felt more real rather than report on politics. From the early 90s onward I started concentrating on environmental issues when I became an environmental journalist and that’s how my career progress started.

Did working as an environmental journalist scare you? According to the Guardian, environmental defenders are being killed at the rate of almost four a week across the world. What kept you going?

Daman: There was trouble then as well but it wasn’t as pronounced as now but it was clear that the government didn’t like it. Kamal Nath, the environment ministry, had me blacklisted from the ministry and their media briefings. The threat wasn’t as real and as big as it was. What kept me going was the belief that you report on underrepresented people and a belief that you would like to see a world better than what it is now. The strength of the people whose livelihoods are/were threatened and their struggles are what keeps you going.

A few years back when I was in college I used to get really angry at people. I would just get so angry at any stranger that I would tell them not to do it. But nowadays reading things like this scares me. Makes me think whether I should speak out or not.

Daman: It is scary and there are a lot of dangers. But you know the point is there are dangers in everything and you’ve got to do what you believe is right.

True. It is always good to hear from people who’ve been through it. It can inspire me and other people who are maybe are as scared as I am or even more.

Daman: No, it actually seems a lot scarier from the outside, not so much when you get in there and you’re in the middle of all it. I used to go as a reporter every year and report on the struggles of people who were affected by the Bhopal gas leak and there one saw a lot of young people who’d given up promising careers to come and work for the victims. Those are inspiring stories and that’s what keeps you going.

You have worked with some of the most prominent consultancies in the environmental field. How does it feel? What were your challenges as well as achievements?

Daman: I moved out of journalism to work in consultancies to try and understand this field a little better. It’s a contract job and you do it but it also tells you how the world is perceiving this and how they’re looking at it from a managerial perspective. You learn how to interact with governments, how to interact with companies, learn what they want to do and what are they looking at. It’s interesting to see how management and marketing concepts are being used to again manage and address environmental issues. I did that for a few years. and of course, there is always a pressure on consultancies like any businesses of revenue generation. But it was good a learning experience and see how these things are being managed here.

One of your internet profiles talks about how you find the shift towards green business immensely exciting and full of opportunities. How’s the Indian market doing in terms of that?

Daman: The Indian market is slowly moving and we’re trying to convince them that there are huge opportunities. Where they’ve seen opportunities like in solar and earlier in wind, the companies have picked up and they’ve moved as they’re now on energy efficiency as well. The government is promoting action through the PAT (Perform Achieve and Trade) scheme of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency which is like a cap and trade scheme on energy efficiency. However, there are actually great opportunities for innovators and this is the exciting field and my message to most companies is that this is a whole new world. This is an opportunity when if you move and you innovate you will find a lot of opportunities, estimates say its about $23 Trillion plus, but you have to manage the risk. If you wait for the government to lay the policies or handouts it will take its own sweet time and by that time you may have missed the opportunity. It’s time for risk takers and for people to step up, for instance, on electric vehicles. Here the government is actually coming out with policy, but there were some early movers like Reva car which the Mahindra group took over. They were struggling for a long time. There are other exciting opportunities in the sectors like green buildings, green products which consume low energy and fewer resources. The Government of India for its part has a fantastic program on – the LED lamps. Through a program, it is speeding up replacement of incandescent by providing LEDs through distribution companies. Using public procurement the government brought the cost down from about levels of 500/600 rupees so that now you can get it from your electric utility for about 60 rupees. That kind of program will lead to a lot of innovation. Bulk procurement can spur a demand and bring down prices. There are a lot of opportunities to be had for companies to take bold action actions so my endeavour is to inform them that these are the opportunities that exist and if they want to really benefit from it they need to move quickly. Sometimes there will be government policies, but not in all cases.

You’re right. Everybody should get started and do something and not wait for one stakeholder to take action. Everyone should be working together. Moving on to your work with CDP. How are companies and cities in India when it comes to disclosing their environmental impacts? Are they open to doing it or hesitant?

Daman: They are hesitant but we are making progress but it’s sort of slow. We get about 30% of the top 200 listed companies disclosing the CDP, that’s between 50 to 55 companies every year and then we have another 70 companies that are through the supply chain program. All in all, we have about 130 companies disclosing but that is nowhere near enough on the enormity of the scale that’s required. Increasingly a lot of investors are now demanding that companies show their green credentials. Our main purpose is to make companies aware of what the investors are looking at and to see how companies can meet those demands and to attract better investment because companies need investments. Now investors are also slowly incorporating green criterion in their investment decisions. The whole idea is to make sure that companies are aware that this is what investors are demanding and for investors to actually come out and say to companies that this is what they want. It has to be a two-way process so we try to encourage on both sides to see how we can better spur action on that.

Going by the CDP India Climate Change Report 2017, in 2017, 51 Indian companies responded to the CDP Climate Change questionnaire, of which 43 were among BSE Top 200 companies and three from other benchmark samples to whom CDP had sent information requests. That’s good, right?

Daman: Yeah it’s good but companies need to take action. As we see in the media that despite the U.S. government pulling out, there are over 2700 U.S. companies and cities and universities that have said that no they will align themselves and their targets to meet the Paris agreement. There are people that see value in doing that. Our main purpose is to work with companies so that they see the Paris Agreement and Climate Action will help them do business in a green manner so that they to gain from savings in energy costs, from better markets, from a cleaner image all the while attracting better talent. Those are our criteria.

Apart from not being aware of the benefits, what else is keeping them from doing this?

Daman: Companies need to make investments now which will accrue long-term benefits. They need to put in a little bit of money now to clean up their operations. Also the fact that they have been tied into the old system, for instance, some companies use polluting fuels like petcoke or they use a lot of coal. If they have to convert to cleaner fuels and systems, they need to change systems that cost money. So right now they’re current business-as-usual doesn’t account for that. They need to find a little bit of extra money to make that capital investment which will then they will recover very quickly sometimes even in the next one or two years. But the fact is that firstly they have to be aware of that and secondly they have to have access to that.

That’s where the CDP comes in, right?

Daman: Yes, and we try and fill that gap and try and educate and inform saying this is the action the best companies in the world are taking. You can learn from them.

Speaking of business-as-usual, currently, India is the third largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter accounting for 6.65% of the global emissions and is projected to witness an increase of over 85% by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario. Is India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution, its climate plan working?

Daman: Yeah, yeah, it’s working! INDC was in 2015 and now that the Paris Agreement is signed its NDC – Nationally Determined Contribution. According to Carbon Tracker, India is one of the few countries that will meet its NDC target. So clearly Government action is working. There are great programs in promoting renewables such as the solar program and others like the LED program I mentioned. Things are moving, but there is need to go beyond as the cumulative impact of NDCs still goes to 2.8 degrees warming by the end of the century. Countries need to tighten their NDCs and take more action. India is well on the way to meeting those targets. But there’s clearly need to do more.

On that, I’m going to wrap up with this last question. A lot of the readers on my blog are not from a hardcore environmental background and some of them are students. What advice would you have for those who’d be interested to walk on a similar path as you have?

Daman: What I like about sustainability, especially as it relates to business, that it is an evolving field. There are few established experts and the field is changing so rapidly where one needs to constantly learn. That I believe, is good for students because it’s a process of continually learning and moving forward. For me, even after two decades I’m still learning and moving along these lines which is quite exciting. I’m sure this would be quite attractive to young people. Also, research shows that the younger lot and students are more concerned about the environment than ever before. They’re looking at sustainable companies and places to work in. Making money is not the sole criteria, and for most, they look at the complete picture. Many feel they might be happier companies that are seen to working to save the environment. It promotes work-life balance and that’s what I tell my colleagues. Often one ends up working on holidays which you don’t really mind as you believe in the higher purpose. Of course, people need to take time off and switch off and do other things. But if you feel that your work is also contributing to a green world, it is a source of tremendous energy and inspiration.

I thank Daman for such a great conversation I learnt so much from! I hope you do too. You can read more about Daman’s work with CDP. Follow him on Twitter: @damandeep.

Wishtree is a kind of a genie


Hindu mythology describes Kalpavriksha (wish tree) as a kind of a genie. Kalpavriksha is not one but many different trees revered and protected owing to its mythological significance and the benefits (or wishes) it provides. In other cultures, it is referred to as Tree of Life or Sacred Tree.

“The banyan tree or nyagrodha is called kalpataru; the coconut tree whose every part is utilised by human beings for various purposes,the ashwatha (fig) tree, believed to be sacred, mahua tree, shami tree or jaant of Rajasthan which stays green always and checks soil erosion is also referred to as kalapataru. A variety of palm is considered as kalpataru in Tamil Nadu in India. The Baobab or Parijata  tree is called kalpavriksh in Uttar Pradesh, believed to have been brought by Arjuna, one of the main Pandavas from the epic Mahabharata.”  – Deccan Views

Why isn’t every tree a wish tree? The answer probably lies in the fact that we don’t have all the knowledge about what every tree provides us. An arborist might help with specific information, but again there’s one thing that all trees give us. What is that one thing? Guess before you read on.

Continue reading “Wishtree is a kind of a genie”

Making the transition

How much coal is there in the world? Where is it found? How much of it should we keep in the ground to avoid negative environmental impacts? Can renewable energy really replace it? How is the transition going to look like?
  • There are an estimated 1.1 trillion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide. This means that there is enough coal to last us around 150 years at current rates of production.
  • Coal reserves are available in almost every country worldwide, with recoverable reserves in around 70 countries. The most prominent reserves are in the USA, Russia, China and India.
A 2015 study in the journal Nature revealed that we need to leave at least 80% of the world’s known remaining fossil fuel (coal + oil + natural gas) reserves in the ground to prevent runaway climate change. It’s 2018 now.
What’s the alternative? A lot of doubts float around renewable energy’s power. Here’s taking the cloud off of it:
  • Renewable energy is not expensive.
  • Renewable energy is big enough to power the whole world.
  • Renewable energy can supply electricity 24X7.
  • Our infrastructure can handle renewable energy.
  • Renewable energy is not bad for the environment.


In India, coal is expected to stay for at least the next 30 years due to its abundance and cost advantage. In the meantime, we have a family of technologies called Carbon capture and storage (CCS) that can help.

Technology, however, doesn’t solve everything.

How do we make this transition humanely? What about the lives that are dependent on the fossil fuel industry? Iron & Earth is led by oilsands workers committed to incorporating more renewable energy projects into our work scope.

What happens to the landscapes where the coal mines exist? Worldwide, former mining lands have become valuable real estate.  This floating solar farm in China, for instance, sits on a coal mine.

Shout out: Thanks, D, for suggesting this topic! :)

Grandpa kitchen

Do you like to cook? Ethnic or fusion? As a job or at home? For yourself or others or both? Spicy or mild? Takeout or home-made tiffin? Beginner or an expert? Do you need motivation or guidance? Do you sell or distribute food? Are you into healthy cooking? Do you recognize food as an environment issue? Do you turn food waste to compost? Is it a human rights issue? Do you donate food? Are you grateful for the food you eat, for the hands who make it? There’s so much one can do around food. This blog post introduces a personality who not just cooks but also donates the food he cooks to charity. Introducing Grandpa Kitchen.

Grandpa Kitchen is a YouTube channel whose goal is to provide basic needful things such as cloths, books, school fees, birthday celebrations, and food to orphan children. Grandpa’s real name is Narayana Reddy. The channel is operated by his son Shrikant Reddy. They are now able to feed children two days a week and may be able to do more with everyone’s support. On similar lines in another Youtube Channel called Village Food Factory, that went viral last year.

To watch him cook food, out in the open air, among the trees, is such a delight. Reminds me of the times when as a kid I relished open air wood fire roasted burnt potatoes. Last year when I visited Sangli, a place in Maharashtra, India, I enjoyed roasted corn, on the road, lined by fields of sugarcane. Eating outdoors has its own charm. When was the last time you had such an experience, or rather created one?

Interview with the Green Comedian Vasu Primlani


Today’s blog post is an interview with Vasu Primlani, a celebrated speaker, environmentalist, actor, professor, somatic therapist, triathlete, baker, and is one of India’s top comedians. She employs comedy to disseminate issues of social messaging, particularly around boundaries, civic sense, gender equity, and the concept of consent, per US civic society standards. She is one of the most prominent social entrepreneurs in the United States and India. For her innovation, she received over a dozen environmental and economic leadership awards globally. Here’s trying to get to know her and her contributions towards environmental protection.

It will take more than just to interview to boil down all that you are – speaker, environmentalist, actor, professor, somatic therapist, triathlete, baker, and a comedian! It’s amazing to see all kinds of things that you do. Where do you get your energy from?

Vasu: Well, there is a rule in the universe. The more you give, the more you get. If you give with the true idea of giving, as in it is not for others, it is for yourself, it is true giving, it doesn’t sap me. It doesn’t tire me. If I’m tired, I’m ‘good’ tired. We tend to conserve energy when there is no need to conserve energy. Also my mother said, “Whatever you do in your life, do it to the best of your ability. If you are very intelligent and you don’t try and you come first, we will be happy with it. If you are not that intelligent, and you try your best and come last, we will be happy with that. Everything you do, do it so well that even God can’t do better than you.” Basically saying that do the best you can. She has taught me to put in 100% effort.

I feel you. Mothers are always so inspiring, my mom always said something similar – “Do what you do well and do what makes you happy.”

Vasu: Yeah, you are right. In fact, the mothers who do not raise their children well try to inculcate in them the practices that they were taught which is do things for others, doesn’t matter whether it makes you happy or not, you MUST do these things.

For the purpose of this interview, I’m going to narrow my questions down to focus on our environment. Tell us about your journey as an environmentalist and how it came to be. What makes you an environmentalist? Did you mother inspire you to be one in any way?

Vasu: I knew when I was 5 years old that I was going to be an environmentalist. I had a favorite teacher and one day she said she loved trees. From that day on I loved trees. I grew up with comic books like Phantom and Tarzan, grew to love these animals and the forests. As I grew older, I realized that, you know we have a saying in Hindi that ‘you don’t make a hole in the plate that you eat from.’ You don’t destroy your own resources, it makes no sense. It doesn’t make sense ecologically or economically. The only difference between the environment and economics is that the environment equals economics plus time. If you say it is not economically viable today, try two or three years later. If you want a healthy happy life, we are all interconnected. If a polar bear in the Arctic is not happy, neither can we be. If we don’t see this interconnectedness between the smallest microorganisms and us, and how the entire fabric of life is intertwined much like mycelium is, much like the internet is, then we haven’t been educated properly and most of us haven’t. Most of us, I would say 99% of people, put the environment as low priority, and their family and health as top priority. Somehow there has been a bifurcation between family, health and the environment, when to me there are all the same thing. My father inspired me, he bought me these comics, he was on the Second World War, he would tell me stories of the jungle, he was also the Dean of Banaras Hindu University, Botany, in his time this was a prestigious post. He used to tell me that before that science has established it, that if you pass by a plant and think a positive thought, the plant is going to be affected positively, biochemically, like you had given it a hug. If you pass by a plant and think a negative thought, it’s going to be affected negatively. Somehow, our ancient culture in India knew that because there is also a saying that if the king of a land is cruel and unfair, the crops of that land will fail. That makes sense because if the king is unjust, the subjects are unhappy, they are going to be walking around in their fields being unhappy, the plants are going to be affected and they are going to die as well.

Environmental education is gaining more and more importance in India now. Not to say it wasn’t there before, in fact seeds for this were planted in my life at school too. Someone came to our class for a workshop about ozone depletion and I made my parents buy a CFC free refrigerator. After that I guess it just started for me. Regarding old knowledge and traditions, they somehow haven’t trickled down so well to the newer generation. I read this interesting article the other day that said “Under this blanket of faith, there is a distinct acknowledgement of the services that these forests provide.” Speaking of education, you have received a master’s degree from UCLA in Geography, Urban Planning and Law. Why this particular course? How did that help you in your work?

Vasu: I had a choice. I got very fond of the English language. I could have done a Masters in English or Geography. I decided that English I can pursue on my own, but I wanted to be a specialist in Geography and the environment, so that’s why I chose Geography. I took the college that was best in Geography in the country. Went to UCLA, I applied to their program because it was at the top 3 at the time. I moved to the US to be an environmentalist, because the US has the highest consumptive pattern in the world, so I figured if I could make a difference in the belly of the beast, I could change the world.

And then you continued to work in the US too, correct? Tell us about your work in the US. How does that have an effect on your work in India? Do you travel to and fro?

Vasu: Initially, I worked in the US for Patagonia in sales, the outdoor company. I got jobs to pay my way through college. I worked for the Environmental Defence (formerly Environmental Defence Fund) at the time, I was a Tech Consultant. I did GIS, web design and programming. I then started my own non-profit and I ran that for 13 years in greening restaurants. What I did was create a system, what I turned on its head were quite a few assumptions – 1. It costs money to be green. 2. Only people who are environmentalists only will be interested or can afford it. 3. There was a one hour segment on NPR about how people of color do not care for the environment. I turned that on its head. Because, 90% of my restaurants were ethnic and I brought them to the top of the class. Their problem was not that they didn’t care actually third world countries traditionally care more about their environment than first world countries do in their cultural practices. It’s just they didn’t know the systems of the US. They didn’t know there was something called stormwater management. If you say stormwater management to somebody who is even fluent in English, they don’t know what they are talking about. How do you expect from a Thai person who is coming from Thailand, English is their second language, they work 16 hours a day, to expect to know what stormwater management best practices are. So, I broke it all down, created a system of quantification. I’m not interested in the touchy feely kind of environmentalism, that you feel good that you are environmentalist and that is enough, no it is not. You have to quantify your change, how much change were you able to achieve. Because of my modes of operation, traditionally government agencies would reach out to their target population through phone calls or brochures, they would get a participation or recruitment rate of 3 to 12% and I would get 95%. The changes I was interested in was not like for instance diverting solid waste from landfills to recycling, I wasn’t interested and I never am to date I’m not. I’m a triathlete, I’m an iron-man level triathlete, I’m not interested in small change, I’m not interested in 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%. My restaurants diverted about 90% of their solid waste to recycling and composting. The restaurant that did the most did 99.5%. Those are the systems I created. In the beginning when I started greening restaurants, it would take me one full year to green a single restaurant. I was interested in systematizing it because doing good should be really easy. You shouldn’t have to create your own path and stand on your head, it shouldn’t be hard to do the right thing. By the time I got the process going really well, I know it is an exception, but still from the point of recruitment and to the point of certification, and the implementation of a minimum 60 environmental measures – in energy conservation, water conservation, pollution prevention, and solid waste minimization, and third-party verification by inspectors, the record I have of greening a restaurant from start to finish was 3 days. That process of 13 years taught me so much I can’t even tell you – 1.  The ability to make positive change in the real world. 2. When I went out to the investors, I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have the system in place, I was trying it out myself. I walked up to strangers, restaurant owners, to participate in the program and God bless them I don’t know why they said yes. It told me what my parents in Alaska told me that most people are reasonable if you give them a reasonable argument and it is also ok to tell people that ‘I don’t know exactly how I am doing but this is where I am headed if you want to walk with me and see where it goes.’ People appreciate honesty. It also taught me that people can tell in 30 seconds if you are trustworthy or not. The San Francisco Foundation gave me a $20,000 grant. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know myself, I had no track record of proving anything in the real world. I just had a history as an environmental professional. It is amazing the leaps of faith that people took. It taught me the most essential thing about being an activist, is that your job as an activist is to make yourself transparent like a prism, white light comes in and it splits into 7 colors on the other side of you. You make yourself transparent, so that people don’t listen to you – the person, but they listen to the voice you represent, which in my case was the Earth. So I speak on behalf of the Earth, and whenever I speak they listen, not because they are listening to Vasu Primlani, but because they are listening to the voice of the earth, because I made myself transparent so that the voice can come through me.

I imagine your mom saying in the background ‘if you do something do it well’, when you say you reached for that 100% while greening the restaurants. It is empathetic of you to keep the culture and language in mind while certifying these minority restaurants. I think the goodness in you made those people have that leap of faith in you. This non-profit you mention, is it the Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education?

Vasu: Yes it was Thimmakka’s Resources. When I came back to India, it showed me exactly how much corruption there is in India. I used to respect Thimmakka, I used to think of her as a hero, now she is not even an average person. This person is a greedy person, they came after me because they assumed that the million dollars that I raised for the environment that I have kept for myself. They don’t know that according to the law of United States IRS that I cannot keep even a penny for my own use. They are so crooked, these people, they believe that there must be two sets of books, one that she shows and one that she has on the side. They came after me, the state of Karnataka put me in prison. They broke law after law after law in getting after me. They said “If you don’t give us money, we would put you in jail.” Which is exactly what they did. It wasn’t led by Thimmakka but she was definitely a part of it. She went publicly and said that I have cheated her and broke a huge amount of laws to prosecute me on a state level. The media in India and the state of Karnataka in India are all colluded to make this corruption, the threat and this prosecution happen.

That sounds so scary. Whatever you do, it seems, you are always going to face challenges and I commend you for standing your ground and not giving in to such things. Is it difficult to use comedy to raise awareness about environmental issues? After all, there’s some politics involved in that as well. I personally get so serious sometimes, I wish I could be funny too. I’ve seen George Carlin and Louis C K do that and it is amazing how comedy puts forth the harshest of truths without spreading negativity.

Vasu: Thank you. I lost 10 Kgs in 1 day, and wasn’t able to think for 3 months. Went through PTSD. Yes, it is difficult to do jokes about the environment because the rule of comedy is that you have to make jokes about things that are popular. That’s relatable, that’s what the best comedy is about. Talking about and do sets on the environment, about diversity, about gender equality, these are the things people don’t even talk about. These are negative subjects. You talk about people getting quiet, they get on their defences, they get offended easily. So, to make jokes about that and I do jokes about these and I get applauded to that level and I said I have to pick up my socks as an artist, pick myself up by my bootstraps to improve the artist I am. The first 6 times I did environmental jokes it went flat. By the third time, the comedian will say this joke is not working I need to stop using it but I said no I need to stick with it because this is the message I need to give and I need to be become a better artist to be able to deliver this level of message.

I’m sorry to hear about your PTSD. I can’t imagine.

Vasu: Yes. They made my mother cry. My father was 93 at the time. Imagine what they went through. And all because there is a veneer of democracy in India. Power runs the law. Not honesty, or justice. All you need to do is make associations with powerful people and even the most crooked people can bend the law to bully good people.

When did you became the green comedian? Did green come first and comedian later?

Vasu: Green first, comedian second.

One of your standups is about solid waste. (Video link here.) According to Jambeck, lead author of a 2015 study and a researcher at University of Georgia in the US, “The top 20 countries, including India, account for 83% of all the mismanaged waste available to enter the ocean”. What do you think about the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

Vasu: I actually have seen absolutely no results in the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan other than a host of marketing everywhere. I have no respect for where I don’t see results. So far, it seems to me and a lot of Indians to be a whole lot of hype.

You’ve formed a Facebook group Delhi Blue Skies to do something about Delhi’s air pollution. How’s that going?

Vasu: I’m just sitting with some slums people to do some passive solar for them. I’ve made one video on indoor air quality plants so I’m starting with me. Got 90 indoor air quality plants and getting them ready for my house. Got a solar audit done for my house and see how many houses I can get under the solar renewable purview. Also designing passive solar for slums because I was thinking of class and there is no reason why poor people can’t have solar systems as well. I’ll start with passive solar and then look for CSR funds to do active solar for slums. Then I’m going to make a video, I just did a brief survey in Delhi on efficient driving and found that 95% of the vehicles that I surveyed get mileage less than what the manufacturer claims. Mine is the highest in the group even though my car is a 2010. If everyone was to drive the way I do, they would save an average 53% on their fuel cost and emissions. Which is great if buses, trucks, Uber and Ola, they all do it, they are going to make a substantial difference on transport emissions in Delhi.

Could you please elaborate on how is it that you drive that would save an average 53% on the fuel cost and emissions.

Vasu: Think of this, imagine two cyclers and they are coming to a stop sign. One cycler pedals all the way and does a hard break at the end. The other guy has been going at the same speed as the first guy. The second guy pedals once and coasts to a stop. Which one arrives first and which one used less energy? This is smart driving right? You drive with the principle of a marble. When a marble rolls, when it’s a ball, when it is something circular, when it has to move, you don’t have to physically put it there to the end point, you can just give it a little tap and it will roll the rest of the way. So, using smart driving principles, such as that, using appropriate gears, little things that don’t cost you anything such as when you are stopped, when you are at a halt at a red light, for more than 10 seconds, you turn off your engine. These are the small things that I do that gives me 21% better mileage than what the manufacturer gives. I have a Nissan Micra and these days I have said I’m not going to drive at all or very little. I’m now taking the bus, I came for this meeting in the bus. Or metro, or bicycle. I’ll also look at buying an electric vehicle after I put in solar in my house so then all my fuel comes from a renewable source for my vehicle. I’ll make a video on that so that will show exactly what I do, so you’ll see then.

True. It’s the little things that help, for example, keeping your tyres inflated to the right pressure. I will be sharing this video exclusively on my blog when you are done creating it :)

Vasu: Exactly, that’s the first thing, the tyres is the first thing. So, I’m a triathlete, any olympic athlete will tell you that they are not necessarily stronger than the next guy but they are definitely the most efficient. They use the greatest amount of conversion of force towards forward propulsion. Any swimmer will you tell you that, any cyclers will tell you that, any runner will tell you that. The purpose of winning in a race is not the one who jumps the highest, the one who’s got the longest stride, the one who’s got the beefiest muscles. It’s the person who goes the greatest amount of distance with this smallest amount of power required. That’s what makes champions. That’s what makes smart driving.

I like how you give metaphors to explain something. You teach courses in business schools and IIT on sustainability. What’s your teaching philosophy? How do you make students understand sustainability? What are your methods?

Vasu: I use everything from economics to teach sustainability, to comedy, and somatic therapy also, in terms of realizing the reality of the body, what you feel good about. A lot of people are stuck in jobs that they hate, that are creating a lot of pollution, but they feel they have to do that for a livelihood. I ask why. Why can’t you create livelihoods doing the right thing? Why can’t you earn money by doing good, that makes you feel good, that’s good for the environment. Why do we have to be losers? Why can’t there be winners everywhere?

Reminds me of Bruce Lee when you talk about efficiency and energy conversion.

Vasu: These are universal principles. Anybody who has tried anything will know these principles.

‘Why can’t there be winners everywhere?’ Great coaching from you. Your tweets are also exceptionally positive. I understand that you want to also replace the punitive approach for enforcing environmental compliance used by state agencies with a more positive incentive-based strategy. You’ve applied this to your work with greening restaurants. Have you also applied this elsewhere.

Vasu: I was director of Ecotel hotels in India, where I was training hotels and saving them millions of dollars every year. One thing we applied at a major chain is I said that they need to make this one change to their lighting and my boss said you cannot put this in front of a 5 star hotel chain because it goes against their brand standards so they will not change that. I said it is not my job to decide for the client on their behalf as to whether they’ll yes to it or whether they’ll no to it, they can do whatever they want with this information. It is my job to present this information to them. They can say no to it for any reason including they don’t like my face. That’s their choice. But I’m not going to make that decision on their behalf. So I gave them that measure which would save 27 lakhs per property globally. I was told by an engineer later that they changed brand standards to incorporate this principle.

Are you at liberty to talk about the technological change in the lighting?

Vasu: Yeah, I specialize in low-cost and no cost measures that immediately save you money. So, this change was that in their lobby they have 1000 watt bulbs, that’s 1kW, you can run an AC on that. They would have these bulbs on during the day. It is really funny. When we were doing lumens measurement, it is a test where you measure how much light is hitting the floor in the lobby. So, the guy who is doing the test recorded the test with the lights on in the lobby and he said “Ok, go ahead and turn the lights off to see if there is a difference in the amount of light that’s hitting the floor during the day.” He said, “Turn off the lights.” “Turn off the lights.” “Turn off the lights!” He said that three times before one guy came running up to him and said, “Sir, the lights have been off.” He could not tell the difference, the instruments could not tell the difference between when the lights were on and when the lights were off! That means that the lights that were on were making absolutely no difference to the light that was hitting the floor. What’s the point of these lights being on? I said, “Just turn these off during the day and you turn them on happily when it gets dark, when it is overcast. It costs you nothing, you have these running for no reason whatsoever.” Another one is, a lot of hotels in India hold the default temperature of the room at 18 deg C. I did a little bit of research and found that the band of human body comfort is I think 24 to 26 deg C. So, you are actually putting them in freezer conditions and if the guy doesn’t know how to control a thermostat, which a lot of Indians don’t, they’ll just sit there, be uncomfortable, wear a lot of quilts, and maybe get sick in the room. Rather than setting it at the band of comfort that you are supposed to, which our bodies are built for. That you find in a lot of Indian hotels, which American, European or Australian hotels don’t do.

Centralized heating and cooling is such a waste, I agree! The technology for distributed heating and cooling exists too. My last question to you would be – What’s your take on the current state of the environment in India? What are your suggestions?

Vasu: When I started working in the US, the population of the US was 264 million and the estimate then was an average first world resident consumes as much as 50 times as many resources as the average third world resident. That would place its metric population at about a billion. India has 1.3 billion population now and it has got the biggest middle class in the world with consumptive patterns that are increasing on a daily basis to perhaps come close to the US consumptive levels. So you are really looking at a population that is not just 1 billion, but 2 billion or 3 billion, in terms of its to its consumptive pattern. So, you are looking at instant disaster. Everyone wants the American dream, everyone wants to have 2 cars or 4 cars. And it is not really about what the environment can afford, we are so removed from what the Earth can sustain, that’s not even in the rhetoric. I have approached Uber and Ola about doing smart driving, they are not even interested. We are going to be talking to the Delhi Transport Corporation. The Delhi Government is not particularly interested. Even though the air in Delhi is in critical conditions, I don’t see system wide solutions being implemented. Honestly, I see it heading for disaster. There’s studies done by leading climatologists that have said that if the Earth was to start all commerce entirely, to 0%, right now, it would be too late. We are nowhere close to reducing it to 0%, we are not even keeping it at 100%, we are increasing it day by day. It doesn’t look good unless there are drastic changes, major changes.

Thinking of the tipping point feels depressing. I guess we are then just buying more time on this planet. Humans seem to be motivated either by money or crisis.

Vasu: Yes and it’s foolish to do so.

However, people like you certainly help bring the positivity and the energy to this movement. And I thank you so much for doing this interview and appreciate the time you took from your busy schedule.

You can read more about how Vasu Primlani has a positive impact on people and also on our environment on her website: www.VasuPrimlani.com. You can also reach out to Vasu directly via Email: Vasu Primlani. Follow her on Facebook: Vasu Primlani Twitter: @GreenComedian Youtube: Vasu Primlani and Instagram: Vasu Primlani