“Saving your money. Saving our environment.” This is the motto of Thimmakka, a California-based non-profit environmental organisation set up in 1998 by a woman of Indian origin, Ritu Primlani.
At the age of 24, Ritu was inspired by Saalumurada Thimmakka, an untouchable woman from Karnataka who had adopted banyan trees and gone on to receive the prime minister’s award for social forestry.
She taught Primlani that you do not have to have great expertise or resources to be an environmentalist. It is with this realisation that Thimmakka’s founder took less than a decade to blaze a trail of path-breaking environmental programmes in the US.
After spending 17 years in the US, Primlani decided to return home and use some of the insights she had gleaned over the years to address India’s environmental problems. According to Primlani, the country is fast becoming an economic behemoth but faces critical environmental problems like water security, climate change and threats to biodiversity.
Fortunately, Indians consume one fiftieth of what an average American does. Also, while US cities don’t have freely accessible systems of recycling, in India people come to one’s doorstep and will pay anyone to recycle their stuff.
“This is far in advance of virtually any city in the US!” remarks Primlani.
But India’s staggering population and negligible enforcement of environmental laws, where they exist at all, means that India could potentially become an environmental disaster much faster than the US. While US businesses consume more resources than Indian ones do, they also conserve more actively. In India, one might be hard pressed to find a device for water conservation or one for composting.
In certain cities in the US, entire departments are dedicated to water conservation, and there are structures to provide subsidised composting. There are also systems of grey water recycling there, while hardly any exist here. States such as Gujarat may have historically developed tremendous water capture systems, but these have been lost in development.
So how can India become more receptive to green ideas? According to Primlani, this will only happen when environmentalism is dove-tailed with a primary concern, or motivatory factor, for people.
“It could be their livelihood. It could be religion. It could be the health of their children. The final argument one needs is an economic one – does the alternative save money as well? “Environmentalism needs, first and foremost to be convenient and affordable. It needs to make business sense for it to work,” she argues. “Men who bicycle to work don’t do so because they are green. They do so because it is an economic necessity.”
Thimmakka Certified Green Businesses (TCGB) was the flagship programme of Thimmakka in the US. With this programme, Primlani and her colleagues sought to bring high-impact, practicable environmentalism to hard-to-reach minority and ethnic business owners. By demonstrating that by cutting down energy, water, trash, and disposables use and forming collaborations to buy supplies in bulk, business owners stand to save a lot of money.
Says the eco entrepreneur, “We could set a powerful example that environmentalism can be successful when it is shown to have significant material consequences. People need to be educated to know the impact of their actions. Face it, cars don’t come with labels that warn you of the cancers you could acquire from the fuel used in it. Cars come as prestige symbols, and lodge themselves as indispensable to progress and economic growth.”
Primlani cites two initiatives with environmental implications to prove her point, the Tiger conservation in Sariska and the Delhi metro. Despite millions of rupees and corporate espousal for the tiger, the Sariska, a reserve allocated for the protection of the tiger is reported not have a single tiger left. This is probably because the problem was not being addressed systemically.
In contrast, the Delhi metro is a tremendous success, both in terms of fighting air pollution and in providing a transport alternative. In nine years this train system has supported a staggering 1.25 billion commuters, who would otherwise have used buses, scooters and cars. By its creation, the metro expects to offset 0.6 million tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent annually, totalling approximately 5.4 million tons of greenhouse gases so far.
Although as a woman of colour working in the US, Primlani did face her share of challenges. She has through her work helped US businesses save $1.4 million so far besides having successfully raised $1 million for her own organisation. And recognition has come her way in plenty. A recipient of the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Heroes award and the California Governor’s Award in 2003, she was named by Organic Style magazine as among the top 50 most powerful environmental leaders in the United States. In 2007, she figured in the list of 35 Under 35 award given to exceptional businesswomen around the world by World Business Report, and in 2009, she was adjudged by the University of San Francisco as a ‘Sustainability Champion’.
Says Primlani, “I was successful in the US because I worked on knowing my audience, designing an end-user based system, and one that espouses how people are, rather than what I’d like them to be. I am not in the business of changing people’s minds. That is never my goal. I am in the business of changing people’s actions. I don’t care why they do it, so long as they do.”
In India, she wants to specifically work on issues of air pollution, energy conservation and security, and water conservation. She wants to develop an Indian standard for green businesses, and develop green roofs for the local climate. She believes one of the greatest failures of environmentalism has been in marketing solutions that are economically viable. When environmental products are financially viable, she argues, they are immediately adopted. The CFL bulb, is a good example.
This is why Primlani now plans to create a resource centre for consumers, both residential and commercial, and for cities, to get green products readily and cheaply. For instance, where does one get recycled paper? Where can you get a green bed? How can you reduce your water consumption by 50-90 per cent? She will feature case studies of people, businesses, and cities, where such strategies are actually being implemented.
Primlani may come across as a person too focused on her work to have fun, but that would be making a seriously wrong assumption. In fact, she is a triathlete, having competed in two Olympic triathlons in Miami and San Francisco in 2010. Apart from which she has been doing half marathons and dabbling in capoeira, an African and Brazilian martial art. Smiles Primlani, “I draw, knit and quilt. I love animals, particularly snakes. Above all, I love rock climbing.”
Now here’s a woman who knows how to combine business with adventure as well as some good, old-fashioned leisure.
(To know more visit Primlani’s website www.thimmakka.org)