By Anjor Bhaskar*
When I close my eyes and think of a an ideal world – one where I would truly like to live; one where I would find true happiness – I imagine it to be one where all beings, humans, animals, plants, insects, live in perfect harmony with one another and with themselves. Where people feel secure enough to not only happily co-exist with others but also respect and care for those in need, those less able to take care of themselves or to speak out for themselves – be it humans, animals, insects or plants. Where ‘equity’ is not just a word – it is everyday practice. Where ‘respect for all’ is not a phrase lost in books, but a belief that guides all minds.
I believe it is only in such an environment that true love, creativity, and happiness can be felt.
My life’s mission has therefore been to create such a world. But often I wonder if such a world is even possible. As I look around me and see a world that is so full of rage, insensitivity and insecurity.
A world where trees are felled mercilessly for any small reason; where animals are killed in the streets or in slaughter houses and their habitats destroyed without any guilt or remorse; where politics thrives on stoking feelings of insecurity and hatred among people; where increasing amounts of waste is produced, dumped and burnt without a second thought; where society seems hell bent on dividing humans into boxes with well defined characteristics and limited freedoms – man, women, transgender, upper caste, lower caste, hindu, muslim, christian; where religion, schools, governments and corporations – all try to discipline us and turn us into hard working but fearful, self serving, power hungry individuals rather than respectful, loving, caring, creative beings. It is easy to see all this and feel hopeless and lost.
But even in this desert of dismay there are islands of hope. One of them, for me, is the Mumbai campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS, Mumbai). TISS is a university which was established in the year 1936 in Mumbai, India. Since then, it has produced thousands (if not lakhs) of social workers, HR professionals, social scientists who are bringing positive change in every corner of India as well as globally. It has also spread across to nearly every state in India through its branches, centres and project offices.
The TISS campus in Deonar, Mumbai is probably the only educational campus in India which can claim to have travelled a significant distance on the road to towards being a truly sustainable and inclusive space – one where all beings can live in harmony with each other and themselves.
TISS is well known globally for its contributions to social sciences and social work and for producing several generations of social workers who have spread to all parts of the country and creating positive change. However, what is less known is the way TISS, the institution, leads by example. I would like to illustrate some of the steps taken by the institute towards becoming an inclusive, sustainable space.
These are, of course, but a few of the innumerable measures taken by the institution to become truly inclusive and sustainable. By writing this, I hope to be able to point out to other institutions how simple steps can make a big difference. I also hope that governments- local, state, national – would take measures to ensure all institutions (schools, colleges, universities, research institutes, official and administrative complexes etc.) also strive towards becoming inclusive and sustainable.
Recycling kitchen waste through bio-methanation
There are two biogas plants which recycle the kitchen waste produced in the canteens and dining halls on campus. These are operated by the collective of women waste pickers call Parisar Bhagini Vikas Sangha (PBVS) – a federation of women SHGs. The gas produced in these biogas plants is used for cooking food in the canteen and the dining hall.
Recycling plant waste through composting
Since the campus is green and full of trees, bushes, hedges etc. there are a lot of fallen leaves, twigs as well as cuttings and prunings which result in large amounts of garden waste. In almost all places in India, such waste is either burnt on site or dumped along with other waste in landfills, dumpyards etc. However, in TISS, such waste is collected and composted in several compost beds. The compost produced here is then re-used to provide nourishment to the plants and gardens.
Recycling waste water through a sewage treatment plant
Professor G.D. Agarwal (Sant Swami Sanand) gave up his life trying to save the rivers. However, the rivers and seas continue to be killed each day by our society and governments as we continue to pollute them by dumping millions of tones of sewage waste into them. At TISS, however, most of the sewage waste is recycled through an in-house Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) and is then used to water the plants.
Running canteens through a cooperative of waste pickers
There are two canteens in TISS and these are run through a federation of women waste pickers called the Parisar Baghini Vikas Sangh. Such initiatives help the women waste pickers step out of poverty and destitution and lead a life of dignity.
An extremely active counseling centre
TISS has an extremely active and forthcoming counseling centre which not only provides support to those in need, but also reaches out to all students through events such as games, workshops, banners, charts, discussions etc. The counseling centre helps students on all sorts of issues such as sexuality, relationships, identity as well as coping with stresses such as studies, exams, work etc.
A gender sensitive campus
TISS provides a safe environment for girls and boys to move freely around the campus and between campuses at all times including the nights. Both can access the library (which is open night long and closes only for 2 hours in the morning for cleaning) at all times of the day or night as well as other facilities (such as the canteen, which is also open late into the night during certain parts of the year). Besides the campus has an active gender amity committee. It is one of the few institutes in the country where the sex ratio is actually skewed in favor of women as the number of girls is higher than the number of boys who are admitted. In addition, there is a general culture of respect for people of all genders and sexual preferences. TISS is probably also the only campus in the country to have a Gender Neutral Hostel – i.e. one where those who do not strictly identify with either of the two genders (male or female) can stay safely. The rooms here are occupied by transgender, gender non-conforming students and their allies.
Despite being in the heart of bustling Mumbai, the moment you enter TISS, you breathe fresher, cleaner air. This is because the campus is full of trees and wild, green spaces. These green spaces not only provide much needed oxygen for our survival and good health, but also provide a habitat for other beings – beings with which the TISS community happily co-exists (apart from the mosquitoes of course).
The buildings on campus, despite being extremely hi-tech, are also built in a manner so as to minimize the requirement for artificial cooling, heating and lighting. There are big windows which allow sufficient natural light and ventilation to keep the indoors nicely lit and cool. The baked mud tiled roofs ensure that the buildings do not get too hot.
Respect and concern for all animals – cats, dogs, monkeys
The institution as well as its students promote a culture of respect and care towards all beings – dogs, cats, even monkeys and insects. All destitute dogs and found on campus are neutered and taken care of by the TISS community who ensure that they protect, feed and befriend the animals.
The hostels on campus are provided hot water through solar water heaters, thus saving a huge amount of electricity.
The campus is extremely sensitive to disabled as all buildings accessible by ramps, the lifts have floor numbers written in Braille for the visually impaired, a special centre for the visually impaired exists in the library where the computers are equipped with special software to facilitate their use of the computers.
In most public institutions, one finds broken, damaged furniture, equipment (such as computers, projectors etc) lying around in neglected heaps in some corner since no one bothers to get it repaired. However, while TISS is itself a public institution, this is rarely (or never) the case. As we see in the above picture, damaged furniture is not only immediately repaired but is repaired by a physically handicapped person so that he can earn his livelihood while providing an extremely essential service to the institution.
TISS has developed very strong ties with several universities across the globe through very active exchange programmes with these Universities. Therefore, a large number of the research students are able to visit and study in foreign universities in Europe and USA to spend a semester. Similarly, a large number of students in universities abroad also visit TISS campus for exchange programmes. Therefore, there is a great deal of cultural exposure through interaction with people of different countries and cultures and everyone is made to feel at home at TISS.
Saving food and water
Notices for saving water are put up all over the campus including all washrooms and wash basins. Further, any leakages in pipes, taps or flushes are normally repaired immediately to ensure that wastage of water is minimized. Similarly, notices for saving food are put up in all the canteens and dining halls.
Ensuring decent working conditions for all workers
While labour laws have been in existence for decades, they are continually flouted by nearly all agencies and individuals. Whether it be government agencies or private ones, most of them end up exploiting the already marginalised workers by paying them less than minimum wages and not providing them with adequate social security. However, TISS is one institution which actually provides regular trainings to all its workers regarding their rights and entitlements and actually ensures that their rights and entitlements are not infringed. All workers – whether it be guards, cleaners, canteen or dining hall staff – are ensured their rights and respect. Further, every effort is made to ensure they are given their due respect and recognition. An annual sporting event is also held for all workers.
Areas of future action
While clearly, the TISS Mumbai campus has taken huge strides towards inclusion and sustainability, there is still scope for doing better.
TISS, Mumbai has two campuses – and old (main) campus and a new (Naoroji) campus. While there exist two biogas plants in the old campus, there is none in the new campus which is why the food waste from the kitchens in the new campus has to sometimes be sent out.
There is criticism of the University’s efforts at inclusion of students from poor and marginalised backgrounds – particularly those belonging to lower castes. The University used to offer a scholarship for such students which have recently been stopped. The University claims this is because of stoppage of funds from the government and the University’s inability to provide the scholarships through its own funds. The University has, reportedly, been undergoing a severe fund crunch of late.
The campus also serves non vegetarian food which has been the subject of some debate and a clash of ethics. From an animal rights point of view, one would argue animals also have the right to life and hence should not be killed for food. From an animal welfare point of view, one would argue that commercial exploitation of animals for food is inhuman and hence should not be supported. From an environmental point of view, it is argued that animal consumption is highly energy intensive and hence environmentally damaging (since the amount of CO2 emissions required to obtain 1 Kcal of energy from animal meat is much greater than the amount of emissions required to obtain 1 Kcal of energy from a cereal/plant based diet).
However, from a cultural rights perspective, it is argued that people of different cultures should have a right to eat as per their own cultural preferences. This argument was extended to argue for the provision of beef on campus – an argument which led to a long stand-off between the administration and some of the students. Nutritionally, the argument goes both ways – some argue that animal meat has nutrients which are not available from a plan based diet while others argue that animal meat is actually much harder to digest, leads to problems such as cholesterol, and also has a higher concentration of disease causing pathogens.
Clearly, therefore, the ethical, sustainability and inclusivity aspects of providing meat on campus draw arguments and views which are not easy to resolve. But the issue is still worth discussing with a cool head. Something that does not happen enough – particularly for an institute and a campus which fares brilliantly in terms of giving respect to all beings – human or non-human.
In the end, however, all of this stands threatened as the institute reportedly faces a massive funds crunch. Hopefully, this financial crisis will soon be resolved and this little haven of harmony will soon be back on its feet.
In a world that seems to be racing towards its own destruction as societies become increasingly unsustainable and inequalities appear to be rising to the point of crisis, TISS offers a ray of hope for change in the right direction. The question is, will our institutions and governments follow the light that is shown by TISS and adopt similar measures and policies.
*PhD student, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Pix: Rakesh Prajapati