Leading Sustainability…
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Leading Sustainability…

April 8, 2019

By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam

Though it is fashionable nowadays to talk about ‘Sustainable Living’ only a few of us actually convert our talk into walk. We spend endless hours in conferences and debates but do very little at the individual level to address concerns affecting our unsustainable ways of living.  

Every few years, the UN hosts summits on preserving the environment and global leaders come together to talk and plan on how to go about making human life on this planet earth sustainable. While a lot of noise is usually made, it is only a small minority which gets down to actually doing something about it.

I have had the privilege of meeting people who neither carry a banner about their personal efforts nor hesitate to live and practice what they preach.  They express their leadership in their own quiet ways and all of them are role models for the rest of us struggling to live upto our ideal of leading sustainable lives.  

I have known Ramaiah (name changed to ensure privacy) for several years now and he has been a staunch believer in himself and his way of sustainable living. Whether it is his own house with water being fully recycled or minimal waste being generated or capturing rainwater and storing it — he has first done it and then is now a committed evangelist. He travels around the country helping people set up solar power systems, rain water harvesting structures, fuel efficient stoves and Watsan (Water and Sanitation) units.  

Apart from SVYM, he has worked with several organisations across the country. And he has been doing all this for free. From teaching students to take this message forward, he has been quietly leading change — by becoming the change that he wants to see.  His belief in himself and his cause is so strong that he never hesitates to call a spade a spade. I have witnessed his confronting the host in marriages and public functions deploring their use of plastic or their guests wasting the food served to them. His views are simple and clear. People need to be exposed and shown how their small actions will affect the environment in a large and invisible ways. And like Hillel, the famous Jewish Rabbi mentions, ‘if the time is not now, then when?  And if it is not me, then who else?’

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Ramaiah’s conviction in the cause, his unhesitating desire to be the change and his courage in reminding people around him of their individual responsibility has left me impressed and inspired.

Another person who in his own quiet way taught me a lifestyle lesson is Anil Venkatesh (name changed) who till recently was associated with SVYM. One day, he was trying to explain to me the nuances of social media and how the same could be constructively utilised.  As he stood up to leave, the pyjama (loose trouser like Indian dress) that he was wearing got caught in a nail in the chair and tore. My immediate reaction was that he needed to change this torn old garment and buy himself a new one. Without much ado and with simplicity and spontaneity, Anil was categorical that the pyjama was not yet unusable. He was clear in the fact that he could have it stitched, and it would be as good as new.

Affordability or the age of the pyjama was not his concern —what mattered to him was its utility. In his own simple way, he was doing what he could do best. Live a lifestyle that took little and tried to conserve as much as one could do.  

Another person in the same league is Jagan Seshadri (name changed).  He is a retired scientist and walks the sustainability talk in his own unique way. He carries a stainless-steel glass, plate and spoon in his cloth bag whenever he attends events where food or snacks are served. He insists that food be served to him in his own plate and politely refuses to use either the paper or plastic plate and cutlery in which food and water is served. He makes it a point to explain to people around him how re-usable utensils save the environment and the need for each one to live eco-friendliness. He is not only able to live his ideals but also reminds those around how small changes can result in huge consequences for all of us.

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Leading oneself and making these difficult but necessary choices is not easy indeed.  For many of us driven by the pressure of time, status, visibility and travel; leaving a larger than necessary carbon footprint is becoming the only way to live.  We seldom realise that making small changes to our lives — whether it is vegetarianism or having a minimal set of clothes or reducing all unnecessary travel, the use of plastics; all this can contribute in significant ways in reducing environmental degradation. What we need is the discipline, determination and the desire to make a difference. And this is what leading sustainability is all about.  It calls for the courage to live one’s convictions, be willing to be socially awkward, and suffer willingly the accompanying discomfort and inconvenience. And isn’t this what leadership is all about?

[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement & GRAAM, teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi.  He can be reached at: [email protected]]

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