The story so far and the road ahead


Energy:

Unlike water and food, energy is not an essential need. Theoretically, we can eat raw food, manually draw water from ponds and wells, not travel at all except by foot or animal carts and do without appliances, let alone the Internet. How feasible is that life? A time will come when we have to make choices that will involve compromises. To me it seemed in 2006, a way to begin would be to use available energy resources as borrowed capital with which to build a truly autonomous energy independent life; once that was achieved the borrowed energy capital could be returned.

Let me begin with the assumptions I made. Plentiful availability of petroleum and grid power would cease to be affordable by 2020. Beyond 2020, diminishing petro-fuel would be available for only public transportation and civic essentials. Communities would perforce be driven to develop local or individual solutions for lighting, power and short distance transportation. How could we plan for that future at pointReturn?

The first exercise was therefore to match energy needs with appropriate solutions. Thus water lifting was to be with a wind pump, cooking served by firewood and electricity derived from solar panels. That still left the need for petroleum in the form of diesel for my commutes and for the machinery to dig the water bodies. A record was kept of the diesel used; it stands at 5,000 litres. It was to be treated as borrowed capital to create a water harvesting system and for soil husbandry. I rationalised that society will continue to have optimised long haul bus, train and cargo transport services available to all even beyond 2020, at a minimal per head of money and energy costs. So the energies incurred under those heads for the project were not added to the petro debt.

My travels for GoodNewsIndia had convinced me that tree based non-edible vegetable oils, such as from Pongamia pinnata had the potential to create profitable local energy economies. The tree had bewitched me since 2001 and over the next 4 years I attempted to encourage its adoption at several places with indifferent success. Deeply convinced of the tree’s viability however, a central role for them was at the heart of my plans when envisioning pointReturn. A 1,000 trees were to be planted which would serve the energy needs of pointReturn and people within a 3kM radius while creating a sustained cash income.

It is difficult to communicate how such an economy will be a success. The reasons are many. For one, our profitability calculations are incapable of foreseeing the sky-high prices post-2020 pongamia oil will fetch [-biodiesel tends to be just a few rupees below petro-diesel]. For another, sceptics are not persuaded that when the crunch comes, issues like productivity of the trees, their harvest, small scale processing of the oil, restrictive laws and adaptation of engines for their use would all be rapidly addressed. Finally, few people have enthusiasm for a forgotten tree whose virtues and gifts will become apparent 8 years after planting.

To answer a contrarian question -what happens if the 2020 crunch does not happen and we are enabled by abundant energy, to live wastefully, happily ever after?- “well, vegetable oils will always be in need for soaps and chemicals, the cake may fed directly to a bio-digester to generate gas and the slurry used to fertilise fields and trees; the enormous leaf fall is a rich source of biomass.” The point is growing pongamia in a large monocultural stand will likely fail but integrated into diverse farming activities, a modest stand of trees can generate income and meet local needs of liquid energy.

At pointReturn, planting of pongamia trees began in 2007 and today, there are 400 trees. About 1,000 litres of oil and 3,000 kg of oil cake per year may be conservatively expected, starting in the 8th year and go on for 50 years therefrom. Today the oil sells at Rs.40/litre and the oil cake at Rs.15/kg. So repayment of the 5,000 litre debt while generating a cash income is realistic.
How this plan is realised in the future remains to be seen.

Related Stories Story on Pongamia Oil in GoodNewsIndia [2001] :: Addressing critics’s concerns [2006] :: Lessons from a biofuel project [2011] :: A successful model in Maharashtra [2011]


Food:

Beginning 2010, food growing has received steady attention at pointReturn. The original intent was to explore whether a land, restored to fertility from total destitution in say 10 years, can produce food for 40 people. About 3 acres were identified for field crops. In so-called ‘organic farming’ energy and water costs are not factored in. It was believed that free electricity for agriculture promoted irresponsible drawal of water and led to wrong crop selection and unsustainable farming. Therefore it was decided to focus on vegetables, millets, pulses and oil seeds, practice responsible use of water and depend on very little external inputs.

Residents have been diligent in seeking out heirloom seeds, experimenting with various species, methods of horticulture and gathering impressive knowledge of cultural practices, matching species to seasons and growing handsome quantity of vegetables and fruits. Foxtail millet and groundnuts [for oil] have been grown sufficiently to meet annual needs.

The soil fertility is increasing steadily if very slowly. Lack of cattle at pointReturn is a significant drag on further progress.

When in a few years biomass availability increases and the RWH system results in higher water table, soil health will steadily improve. A well was dug in 2012 and it is is not conclusively known yet, if it will mature into a reliable source of water needed for agriculture, however sensitively practiced.

A grid power connection was applied for in 2013 but not for a tariff-free service: pointReturn will pay for every unit of power consumed. In the rising cost of power is a mechanism to encourage frugality and eventual adoption of an alternative source.

Related stories: Early experience at pointReturn[2010] :: Food produced in 2010 & in 2011


Money:

Life in an integrated rural habitat nudges one to reassess money and its role in our lives. All notions of how much money is required, what are the essentials it needs to buy and how to make it are held as obvious by urban dwellers. An average urban dweller, at a minimum, pays rent, buys water and food, maintains a work-wardrobe, commutes to work and invariably seeks a doctor for his family’s frequent concerns. Rural life can be lived without money for most of all the above. The quality of air and water, constant delights that accompany the evolution of a land into a rich habitat, silences unique to nature are bonuses difficult to quantify in money terms.

However, ‘modern’ life has its charms and attractions and so the need for cash cannot be wished away. When pointReturn was conceived, it was believed that money- like petro-fuel, described earlier- should be used as capital to develop the land into a productive space. After a time say 10 years, there would be a tidy income for 10 residents, the major contributor being bio-fuel sales. Planned harvest of timber trees, a natural apiary and naturally preserved foods are other sources of considerable income.

Generating unforced surpluses from a land, barren until recently, requires the convergence of water adequacy, increased biomass and soil fertility and above all a critical number of residents [-which should definitely be above the current three] and their continued enthusiasm for realising the potential.
It will be another 6 years before any conclusion may be reached about steady flow of money.

Related stories: How they lived just 100 years ago[Kumarvelu recalls :: Vasimalai recalls] :: pointReturn team shares its views [2010]


13 thoughts on “The story so far and the road ahead

  1. Hello DV,

    Not sure if you might be able to place me; we were in touch during your gni years and I was in Boston back then. Had the honor of sending some stuff for your laptop back then.

    It’s been quite a while but I always refer to the stories on gni for inspiration. :)

    Would love to help/participate on pR.

    Any chance you could email me back please and give me your contact particulars please?

    Thanks and warm regards,

    Rajan

    1. hello rajan…
      yes, yes… i do recall our connection.
      i am sorry i have taken all this time to reply.
      slowing down, i am afraid
      agains thanks for getting in touch
      sridharandv [at] gmail will get me if you want to write again
      regards
      dv

  2. Sir,there is is this Chennai based volunteer group called The Weekend Agriculturist, which helps farmers by providing free labour on weekends.If you wish,you could check them out.
    Regards,
    Sujatha

  3. Dear sir,
    I have been a follower of your sites- GoodnewsIndia and PointReturn. In fact I have followed you as you went about your work. Through your wonderful posts I have shared your joys, triumphs and disappointments. I wish you luck. In between when there was no posts for a long time I slowly drifted out.
    It is after a long time I am coming back and felt I should convey my deep appreciation for the huge challenge you have taken at this age.
    My thanks also for the huge collection of highly motivating news about India that you had collated and published in your GoodnewsIndia site.
    Thank you sir, for having given many proud moments reading the highly inspirational stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things without any desire for name or fame.

    Thank you sir, once more for having inspired me in some of the most tough periods of my life. Good luck! God bless!
    narendran

  4. Hi I have followed pointreturn for sometime . I want to suggest few more ideas from around web for reclamtion of wastelands and imporve soil nutrients. One of the idea is studying Terra Preta soils of Amazonia which have very high carbon content from charcoal which provides a rich medium for storing nutrients and a condusive environment for microbes. I have also come across articles around use of humic acid for improving soil fertility. Neyveli lignite corporation sells humic acid @ 30/litere. Once of my friend did use humic acid for his water melon field. Though he couldn’t say if it improved the yield in short term ,the benefits seems to be long term. Another soil fertility and pest management forming is from Subhash palekar’s Zero budget forming using Jeevamrut ,agniasrta etc. I have seen a listing of farmers using and benefitting from Zero budget forming techniques. I am not sure if DV has incorporated some of these,since I have not been following regularly.

    Cheers
    Satya

  5. Dear DV,
    I have followed your efforts since the initial days of Goodnewsindia.com. It is a great effort indeed and nothing has been a failure. There is a wealth of information and resource. There are so many important lessons. My feeling is, the failures are mainly in the growing department. It probably requires a lot more in depth understanding of the soil, water, climate, suitable seeds, crop selection etc. I was so thrilled after reading fukuoka’s ‘one straw revolution’ and tried a few things in the same line. The seeds I threw didn’t even sprout! Raised bed growing was much better but still pest control was impossible by natural methods! I feel it requires a lot more skill to grow successfully and it is not surprising if we are met with failure in the initial attempts. The soil there might need a lot of work or enrichment with organic matter to enable it to grow more successfully. (here in UK, I see truck loads of manure emptied on the field and mixed with the top soil to make it organic rich)An effective way of irrigation may be needed. I wonder if polytunnels would be successful in growing as they conserve the water by keeping the water vapour within the polytunnel. Polytunnels also help pest control. I wish you had input from expert growers for every crop tried there. Diligent following of their advice would help find more successful growing. I also felt a more limited choice of crops, best suited for the conditions of the land there would be more appropriate. This would help us to concentrate on them more, understand their needs better and get maximum yield. I think everything else has been accomplished exceptionally well there especially the pond, swales, dwellings, windpump etc.

  6. “goshala as a main anchor around which a biogas digester,a vermi-compost plant … can emerge”

    Goshala will be a lot of work and you will need more people for it. But biogas-digeser and vermi-compost can be had without a goshala in the beginning. Actually we can put any bio-waste in biogs-digester like leaves, left-over food, fruits that grow on your trees, etc. And these will work much better than cow-dung and produce much more bio-gas. Same for vermi-compost too. You can add goshala as well later when you have the man-power to support it.

    Did it rain there since you last reported? What does pR produce on an annual basis? How much is annual revenue of pR? Of-course the cost at pR would be much more, but is it going down?

    Thanks,
    Amit.

  7. Our Dear and Respected Sridharan ji,

    Greetings. It is long since we interacted. I do not find your numbers readily. Very happily i do recall many talks we had over ph.

    Regards
    S Ramakrishnan

  8. Dear DV, I am a long time fan/admirer of your project at point return. Saddened to see that you don’t think you have made enough progress. Sincerely hope you achieve your original goal of setting up an intentional community. Good luck. Do keep us posted of any new developments.
    Sincerely,
    Capton.

    1. capton,
      maybe my feelings that sadden you about insufficient progress at pR are due to my age- 72! time does run very fast when one is that old!
      i do hope pR becomes a lively, active community someday.
      i am hoping to work to realise that and shall post on steps i take
      dv

  9. Dear Mr. D V Sridharan,

    I am a longtime visitor of goodnewsindia dot com and have felt inspired by your work and looking forward to your success. You have not published data on number of visitors and kind of visitors on an annual basis. You have also not made your trust document and the clauses in it public. They may be of value to others who may want to copy it when making their own trusts. It also may inspire future volunteers.

    You asked, “The premise of pointReturn is that no one will ever have the right to title of the property but only to the rewards of their collective work. Is this a serious flaw?”

    No, not at all. This is a must.

    PointReturn needs to do several things that integrate with each other to create value for not only the people outside PointReturn, but also for people inside PointReturn. Probably people don’t see value for themselves when living in PointReturn and hence your numbers have stagnated. People will see value for themselves in living at PointReturn only in terms of getting a job and being paid for it.

    1. You can pay money to hire live-in workers, who live for free and get annual salary of say fifty thousand rupees or whatever makes sense there. So you are paying in both cash and kind. You may get more volunteers if they see that they get to become supervisors and will have workers to do hard work.

    2. To earn more cash, try to make PointReturn as a recreational facility that people from Chennai can visit. You will have to develop some recreational facilities in addition to investing in more huts, solar power, bio-gas for cooking, diesel generators etc. You can advertise for couple and family retreat and outdoor birthday parties. Recreational facilities could be hiking/biking/canoeing/petting zoo etc. Probably students from colleges or young adults can become your target customers. This will not only earn more cash for you but also increase visitor flow to PointReturn and hence potential future volunteers. People living in Chennai may value an opportunity to live in peaceful natural setting for a weekend, where they have opportunity for recreation, and don’t have to worry about cooking. They may want to pay for it as long as there are good recreational opportunities. Or you can setup a small adventure park in one acre where people can try rock climbing, and other such sport.

    3. You already have excellent ideas about vermi-culture, and bio-fuel etc. But you need to start producing these and selling the products to local farmers and market.

    4. The real value and sustainability would come from how much valuable does PointReturn become in economic terms. How much cash flow can it generate by selling what ever it produces both services and products to outside world.

    Thanks,
    Amit.

    1. dear amit…
      i appreciate your having written and apologise for this delayed reply.
      yes, pR has to do a number of things now and i am trying to figure out what and how. thanks for your ideas. i respond as below:
      1- two issues with this- a- people motivated by the pR mission are unlikely to agree to work for money and the reverse is also not automatic. b- in the longer run the payments made to people has to be generated by and at pR.
      2- this i am afraid is a terrible idea. tourism -of any kind- means pampering and pollution.i would not walk this road at all, no
      3- thanks, yes. these are very viable. i am casting about to see how to kick-start them.
      4- perfect. you got it absolutely right. that was the original intention behind an adventure like pR. i might add, the challenge is how to do that consistent with environmental integrity.
      thanks again. keep following what happens here and wish me the best does.
      dv

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