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Storm In A Kulhar

Earthen cups are replacing the plastic ones. Activists debate the practical implications of Laloo's policy.

Storm In A Kulhar
Swapan Nayak
Storm In A Kulhar
Train journeys in India have always been associated with dust, grime, crowds and vendors honking "chai garam". Those milky, sweet concoctions that tasted of waking up, the earth, faraway places, and lingering grit. For those romantic souls who've regretted the loss of that earthy aroma and its replacement by the smell of plastic and detergent, railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav is bringing back the bygone era.

Except that this decision is more political than romantic in nature. In three to six months' time, all drinks served by the railways or nominated private caterers on trains and all stationary canteens and restaurants run by them or the IRCTC across the country will be in terracotta (burnt clay) cups or kulhars. The railways will follow this up with a ban on cola and other aerated drinks. So if you like plastic mugs or soft drinks, carry your own one and pack it back after use.

Though the order for kulhars has been passed and is already in operation in the canteens at Parliament, the PMO and Rail Bhavan plus some trains, it will take some time to be fully implemented since potters are a poor and unorganised lot. Laloo has advised them to organise themselves, form cooperatives and apply for tenders which is the usual way of getting things done in the railways. Laloo is also reportedly perturbed about the implications of his order and is seeking counsel on how to make this a success. After all, the order follows directly from the CMP—one of its objectives is to support and promote the unorganised informal sector, especially cottage industries. Pottery is one of those mentioned in the CMP.

Unfortunately, like all Laloo's decisions, the kulhar order too has got embroiled in a raging and unpalatable controversy. While Laloo, to be fair to the man, wanted low-caste potters to have some sustainable employment and a little political mileage for himself on the side, since many potters are in the poorer states of UP, Bihar and Bengal, the kulhars have now triggered a serious economic and environmental debate. Some environmental activists, craftspersons, and a part of the media brandish the argument that not only does this mean keeping the potters tied to a prehistoric, low-income cycle of occupation, it will also contribute to serious degradation of soil and the outlying environment. The other side uses the emotive heritage and rural conservation argument to say that surely anything is better than the indestructible, garbage-creating plastic!

More important than the debate is the size of the job Laloo has taken up. And going by the logistics involved, it does seem unworkable and of little economic gain to potters. There are at least 29 lakh potters in the country. And since community-based census was last done in 1971, the true number could be double that. Some 14.2 million (ticketed) passengers travel by train everyday. Since a lot of them carry their own food and utensils, the railways estimate that they'll need at least five million-odd kulhars a day. Or about 1.8 billion a year. Railway officials say that to expect potters to organise themselves, stick to government standards and deliver kulhars in such large numbers regularly (much more than this will be needed because of the high breakage risk) is like asking for the moon.

Even that can't be achieved without a marketer or middleman who'd very likely take away half the potter's profits. IRCTC managing director M. Chopra expects the railways to procure kulhars at 40 paise a piece as against the coated paper cups that come for 7-10 paise each. Or Rs 72 crore a year, but even this estimate seems optimistic, viewed from the practical experience of Jyotindra Jain, former director of Crafts Museum, Delhi, and now dean, School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU.When Jain introduced kulhars at Crafts Museum a couple of years ago, he paid 40 paise a cup and he did have to go through a middleman to procure them from the Uttamnagar potter's colony. But he was forced to discontinue his experiment because of several reasons, the worst of which was that instead of being disposed, they were being reused. "Despite constant vigilance, many were going back to the chaiwallah or being resold to us. Very unhygienic!" says Jain.

Strict care must be taken while using and handling claycups. Both Sachchidanada Chakrabarti, scientist-in-charge at the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, Calcutta, and Jain point out that the ash and grime present in the finished product must be washed out thoroughly. The cups then must be soaked in water for a long time to limit absorption of the liquid that's poured into them. The final use or even reuse can be only after the soaked product has been thoroughly dried to prevent germ buildup and then washed in hot water or put through a sterilising steam chamber before serving.

That apart, there are other problems like shape, structure, wobbly base, loss of taste of drink, and so on. More important though are environmental damage arguments, some of them put forth by Maneka Gandhi (Outlook, June 28). She argues that since the technology and process for making kulhars are the same as that of bricks, making kulhars large-scale will damage the soil, pollute the air, destroy surrounding trees and ultimately benefit the potter little since he stands to gain a mere 10-15 paise per piece. "Biomass being burnt to produce something non-biodegradable. Frankly I don't see how it (popularising kulhars) can be done," she says.

Enviromentalist Vandana Shiva disagrees vehemently. "The kulhar is the symbol of an earth-based, crafts-based culture—the ultimate sustainable economy. The clay is obtained by desilting tanks, irrigation channels and streambeds. The potter desilts water storage and distribution systems and the fuel used in the potter's kilns are the biomass waste that farmers provide," she says.

Jain agrees that the fine clay used by potters is available from riverbeds, cropfields and even clay mines that are leased. But the products are baked in small rural kilns that use not only cowdung but also coal and wood. Making kulhars in very large numbers then might lead to soil erosion as well as some environmental pollution. Especially since kulhars are not exactly of the ashes-to-ashes dust-to-dust variety. Even small pieces of terracotta take decades to merge back into the soil, sometimes even thousands of years. "What comes out first of archaeological excavations? Pots and stuff made of mud. Look at the 5,000-year-old Indus Valley civilisation," say Jain and Maneka.

But "whatever the impact of kulhars on environment," fumes Sumita Dasgupta of the Centre for Science and Environment, "they're not worse than plastics surely? I know we need to look at the Indus Valley point more closely, but even that civilisation wasn't polluting. Take a plastic cup on one side and a kulhar on the other, which side will the ecological balance tilt? The entire controversy is motivated, by political and business interests."

Chakrabarti agrees. "Even recycling plastics is polluting. We can't compare western societies with ours. They're using starch-bonded containers that biodegrade within 72 hours. With all clay-based products, certain precautionary measures have to be taken, but there has been no coherent R&D. The railways should get some study done on the safety and biodegradability aspect," he says.

Is it then, as Maneka says, really a Hobson's choice, or has the irrepressible Laloo finally hit upon the best politically correct idea of his career? The environment question is essentially one of recycling: either through process or reuse.To make kulhars worthy of reuse is to not only revisit the hygiene question but to also look at improvement of quality, implying a lot of R&D, which makes them costlier. "No problem, the passengers pay for it," says the railways spokesperson.However, passengers can rest easy for now. Laloo has budgeted Rs 250 crore for kulhars this year.

But Laloo's not the first railway minister to profess a bias for kulhars. Predecessor Nitish Kumar toyed with the idea and George Fernandes, during his 11-month tenure in 1989-90 with V. P. Singh, actually managed to pass an order sanctioning kulhars, which foundered only with his departure. Laloo is the only one to have finally done it. The next six months will prove whether his lofty idea will bite the dust.
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