From growing ‘Frankenstein strawberries’ to becoming a pragmatic ecologist
Ashwin Paranjpe, Batch 2016-17
Humans of Ecological Society Pune
One part of Ashwin’s farm is dotted with shrubs and trees growing wild. On the other part, tall coffee plants have spread their roots in cool, dense patches. Gorus, the organic farm, is Ashwin’s home too. It is a place that has blessed him with peace, wilderness and seclusion...three things he has grown fond of, much like Keshav, his Bhil (a tribe) farm employee. This experimental farm in Mulshi was witness to his 10-year-long journey with community supported agriculture (CSA). As part of the activity, Gorus Farm and other neighbouring farms catered to the needs of organic food lovers in Pune city.
Ashwin Paranjpe, an alumnus of Ecological Society (batch 2016-17), is also an ecology and water researcher. He has worked extensively on wastewater treatment projects in rural as well as urban areas in Pune and Aurangabad. He worked with Gomukh Environmental Trust where he was part of the team which worked on watershed development and renewable energy projects in Kolvan valley.
After experiencing the destruction caused by India’s largest dam - Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada river in Gujarat - the watershed development project in Kolvan valley as an alternative to large dams and centralised approach caught my attention. Ashwin implemented it with Gomukh, and it involved the preparation of catchment area treatment plans for 17 villages through participatory rural appraisal. He explains, “This concept is worth replicating at thousands of locations in the Western Ghats as well as other hilly regions. It is based on traditional knowledge with some modern elements.. low cost, zero energy drinking water supply 24x7!” Ashwin also worked on creating gravity based drinking water supply systems by harnessing the water from natural springs in the western ghats. Here’s a short film about this project: https://youtu.be/tocBirkUXYY.
More recently, Ashwin has designed and implemented a nala eco-restoration project for BAIF at Uruli Kanchan, using watershed techniques and reed beds. The main principle is to slow down the flow of polluted water just enough for the variety of plants (and bacteria residing in their roots) to purify the water In addition to innovative ecological ideas, Ashwin has a good understanding of social engineering, which comes in handy while implementing unconventional projects. “Rootzone technology has been known and practiced for hundreds of years. The skill is in implementing it in real-life scenarios,” quips Ashwin.
The 43-year-old post graduate in horticulture from the US recalls his experience of working on the nala eco-restoration project. “No one was ready to get into the smelly, sewage to construct the bunds. We had to fall back upon the willingness and skills of the Wadari community, who had till then used the sewage in the nala to rear pigs. In Indian society, there’s a fixed understanding of who should do which work, and who shouldn’t,” resents Ashwin, referring to work being divided on the basis of caste. According to the national movement Safai Karmachari Andolan, 98% of the manual scavengers in India are till Dalits and women (https://www.safaikarmachariandolan.org). Manual scavenging is work that involves people to clean human excreta. He whole-heartedly appreciates the Wadar community’s effort by putting the names of his workers - Namdeo, Narayan, Baban Mali, Vishwanath, Amar, Sadashiv, Shakuntala, and others - on the company’s nala project report.
The banks of the Uruli Kanchan nala, with a majority of native plants, now look like a garden. There isn’t any smell and the methane eruptions have almost ceased as cleaner water flows down to the Bhima river. Ashwin believes that such eco-restoration projects can be implemented on Pune’s nalas too. The smelly nalas will then become places of public recreation, besides reducing the pollution load on the rivers.
Ashwin doesn’t stop here though. He is now curious to find out the source of mosquitos in the nala. Research done in other constructed wetland systems in Florida suggests that Cattail mosquitoes (Coquillettidia perturbans) thrive on the roots of Cattail (Typha spp.) which is also the dominant vegetation in some sections of the Uruli Kanchan nala. Some researchers suggest that a mixed vegetation provides better conditions for mosquito breeding than mono specific Typha stands. “That’s a bit confusing - we need to investigate this aspect and find solutions to this problem in the Indian context; do you know any mosquito experts?” he asks.
Before going for a Master’s course in Horticultural Sciences from the University of Florida, he had done his Bachelor of Science (Agriculture) from Mahatma Phule Agricultural University, Pune (India). Unfortunately, both courses focused on extensive use of chemicals. Ashwin became an organic farmer after he hit the bottom of the chemical agriculture “pit” where he was producing “Frankenstein” strawberries loaded with chemical fertilisers and pesticides during his master’s research. The use of chemicals seriously aggravated his asthma, and he decided to shift to organic farming. He spent six months working at Rosie Koenig’s organic CSA farm in Florida. After that, he spent a couple of years in Spain growing organic vegetables on a small farm, and doing research in ‘zero-discharge tomato cultivation’ at the Institute of Agri-food Research & Technology in Barcelona, before he came back to India to start Gorus in 2008 as a community supported agriculture initiative.
The Ecological Society course showed Ashwin the inevitable link between agriculture and ecology and convinced him that inputs for farming must be obtained from the farm itself, and one has to look at crop production as a complex ecological system that is an extension of the existing natural ecosystem rather than a mutually exclusive process.
Today, Ashwin is giving shape to his vision of an ecological farm, and is happy to guide people in their own experiments. He has already helped civic groups and NGOs from Mumbai, Bangalore, Bhopal, and Rajasthan start CSA initiatives on their own turfs. “This is our real gain; Gorus has nothing to show in the bank account,” he says with pride. Gorus is also open to home stays.
“If I do each project myself, there will be a limit to how much can be achieved. I would like to help others do the same. I have carried the mountain (of executing everything myself) on my head for many years. Now I need to focus more on thinking, experimenting, and planning.”
Till the end of the 2018 academic year, Ashwin taught Environmental Systems and Societies at UWC Mahindra College, Pune, and was also the head of Biodiversity and Sustainability department there. He is the principal co-ordinator at Gomukh Centre for Rural Sustainability, Pune. He frequently speaks and writes about agriculture and water. He is currently exploring the possibility of expanding his research in wastewater treatment using reed bed and other techniques.
But the 43-year-old has now become pragmatic about the notion that he could change the world all by himself. After hearing of my perpetual exhaustion and stress while working as an environment writer, Ashwin patiently advised, “You must do things according to your emotional, financial and time limits. It is a balance. You have to give time to yourself too, and this is something no one else can do for you.”
Ashwin has hit the nail right. Have you?
Story and photographs by Shatakshi Gawade
Edited by Anoop Jaipurkar