A telecom engineer with expertise in Internet security systems in the Silicon City of India, one would imagine, was a person who lived out what the majority of us do, in these times: the consumerist dream... with no qualms whatsoever. K.P. Singh, however, chose to respond to his calling and take the road less travelled. He quit his job and got involved completely in social and civic causes and has been engaged in building oases of responsible communities in our arid urban landscapes. Singh’s story powerfully illustrates the changes that can come about through the serious intent and dedication of even a single individual. A member of the faculty at Bhoomi College, K. P. Singh readily agreed to share his journey with Rema Kumar.
Rema Kumar: What was the turning point for you?
K.P. Singh: The first Bhoomi Conference, in 2009, had a deep and lasting impact on me. The talks by Shri Satish Kumar, Dr Vandana Shiva and Shri Devinder Sharma shook me, stirred something within me. Subsequent conferences helped bring clarity about the notion of a “good life.” It became crystal clear that the unmindful pursuit of wealth and of consumption was neither good for us nor for Mother Earth.
RK: What within you enabled you to take this call?
KP: The clarity that the “good life” is NOT brought to us by unlimited material possessions and wealth: such a notion of progress and development is not at all sustainable! This helped me to do course corrections in my own life. It became quite clear to me that what we should care about was clean air, water and safe food. I felt that I must spend the rest of my life working on these issues and spreading awareness about them. It no longer made sense to me to keep working on meaningless things just to earn more and more money.
RK: Tell us about the range of activities that you are involved in.
KP: Urban issues of drinking water, solid waste management and sewage treatment are the main areas where I spend most of my time. Protection and rejuvenation of lakes and encouraging communities to harvest rainwater and recharge groundwater are also activities that I am involved in because that will lead us to drinking water security. In addition to this, I spend time in spreading awareness and encouraging residents [in the housing complex where I live] to grow their own fruits and vegetables in their balconies, terraces, kitchen gardens and empty plots. I also spend some time [being involved] in political and non-political movements like India Against Corruption and Swaraj Abhiyan. I spend a lot of time in the maintenance and upkeep of the residential [complex’s] community, Rainbow Drive, in Bengaluru, of which I am a part. I have been part of their Managing Committee (MC) for the last seven years, and served as Honorary Secretary for three consecutive terms.
RK: What was your family’s reaction to your decision?
KP: I got tremendous support from the family. My children have been very amenable to the changes that we have made to our day-to-day life. The fact that I became busier after quitting my job and that, on weekends, I am no longer [free] has been frustrating for [my wife], at times.
RK: What have been some of the challenges?
KP: The sudden drop in disposable income definitely posed challenges. We had to create a source of moderate income, to ensure that the children kept attending school and the bills were taken care of. I have a large family to support, back home in U.P. [the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh]. I had to work with them, too, to ensure that they became less dependent on me. Another challenge has been answering the frequently asked question, “What do you do [for a living]?”
RK: Do you believe that individuals and communities need to take charge of their civic responsibilities and why? How did you garner support from others?
KP: I absolutely do! I strongly believe that it is time individuals and communities took charge and did things at their level, rather than wait for problems to reach a scale of such magnitude that action becomes not just difficult but impossible. What my experience has taught me is that the first step, however small, may not be easy, but soon enough others join you, and you draw strength and support from each other, and a momentum builds up. Some of us in the Rainbow Drive MC could see quite early the water issues that our [housing] society and Bengaluru, in general, were bound to face in times to come.
In 2007, we convinced all the MC members to go ahead and implement rainwater harvesting (RWH) and groundwater recharging, to set an example for the rest of the residents. We held open-house and awareness sessions, by calling experts and hydrogeologists and sending emails. We also hiked the tariff of the bore well water that we supplied to the residents. The intention was to ensure that residents become conscious of their per capita and monthly consumptions. Today I can say that we take our role of being responsible citizens seriously.
RK: When you look back at your journey so far, which are the moments that stand out?
KP: The journey so far has been very fulfilling. Meeting a saint like Shri Satish Kumar has been very precious. Through Bhoomi Network, I have been meeting many beautiful people who enrich my life more and more. Being part of last year’s “Economics of Happiness” conference was, again, very rewarding. In my journey of ensuring water security in Rainbow Drive, there have been quite a few moments that are challenging and exciting. Implementing slab rates and hiking the water tariff to Rs 125 per kl – if the consumption of
the household was more than 25 kl – was one such decision.
Although that needed quite a bit of convincing, once approved by the MC, it brought down the water consumption of many households significantly. Most of them brought their monthly consumption down to the sub-30 kl level. Another instance was our decision to make RWH and groundwater recharge mandatory for every house, failing which the community water supply was to be disconnected. I received threats of legal action from a few residents. I weathered all these and ensured that everyone complied with this decision within six months. We made sure all support and help, in terms of consultancy and manpower, was readily available to residents so that they could get the work done without any hassle. I was often asked, “What’s the guarantee that we will get water after groundwater recharge?” and “Where are the rains?” My response was that we needed to do our work and leave the rest to Nature! It was heartening, though, to see that the rains started as soon as we completed our work and the positive effects of recharging were experienced soon after the first rains. Our success story spread quickly to neighbouring residential layouts and many of them benefitted from our experience.
RK: You are, in your own way, becoming a jal-purush. Tell us about the specific initiatives you pioneered in your colony.
KP: After ensuring 100 percent compliance in groundwater recharging from every household, our next target was to ensure that we closed the water loop in Rainbow Drive by treating and reusing household wastewater. This was a huge challenge. We had two existing but non-functional electromechanical STPs [sewage treatment plants]. We had tried a few times to repair them; but this needed significant effort and money. The treated water quality was [thus currently] unreliable. After spending a couple of years in unsuccessfully working with the existing plants, we were able to convince the MC and residents that a new plant based on green technology would help us address the issues of high energy, high maintenance, complex operation and unreliable quality of treated water. We embarked on a long, intense [phase] of identifying the technology, raising the funds, identifying the vendors and, finally, constructing the plant. But the end result was very satisfying. Today, Rainbow Drive, a 35 acre colony, appears to be the only colony to have implemented 100 percent RWH and the first colony in south India to have implemented an STP based on phytorid technology. We are reusing the treated water for various non-potable purposes. We are also the first to apply to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to recharge the surplus treated water into the ground.
I signed off by asking KP whether he would describe himself as an idealist or a realist. He replied that he considered himself a realist who engaged with real issues and problems which he genuinely believes need to be addressed. He says he is also an optimist who keeps hope alive within him and anchors in faith as he walks on…