Redemption Songs | Verve Magazine
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June 19, 2020

Redemption Songs

Indian music festivals have been demonstrating a refreshing sense of responsibility in terms of their ecological impact. Interacting with stakeholders who strive to make these large-scale events greener, Akhil Sood investigates the reasons behind the improved attitudes of audiences and the increase in corporate support

Ten years ago, open-air music festivals featuring independent artistes were little more than a novelty in India. Culturally and conceptually, they were still very young, hip and fresh. And back then, we knew far less about the effect of these festivals on the environment. A 2015 study of the industry in the UK, titled The Show Must Go On, notes how festivals were generating 23,500 tonnes of waste annually, over two-thirds of which would end up in landfills. The carbon emission, excluding travel, was close to 20,000 tonnes. Yet, this consequence was barely a concern for Indian festival promoters.

conservation journalist and festival-goer

The Bengaluru-based conservation journalist — who has worked as a music writer as well — didn’t have much access to indie music while growing up in Mumbai. But hanging out at the erstwhile Blue Frog in the early 2010s sparked an interest in live shows. In the years since, Shruti Sunderraman attended many major Indian festivals — multiple editions of NH7 Weekender, Mahindra Blues Festival (MBF), VH1 Supersonic and Backdoors – and travelled abroad to watch acts like Radiohead, Aphex Twin and The National. “I felt that by consuming music in this way, I could develop a personal relationship with it. It didn’t matter how it was recorded, reviewed, or perceived. I got to experience it on my own.” Over time, that relationship has deepened and evolved, and Sunderraman feels a sense of community at gigs.

Festival culture, she points out, is still very new in India. “Initially, I don’t think anyone approached it as a mass gathering where one had to be conscious of one’s actions. People didn’t think about what they were consuming or the waste they left behind. Debauchery was seen as a sign of time well spent!”

Following a period of relentless YouTubing and research, she now makes her own cleaning supplies (biodegradable floor cleaner, dishwashing soap and laundry detergent), even using the excess non-toxic laundry water for her many plants at home. She organises awareness campaigns about local flora and fauna, often underlining the fundamental need for grassroots community engagement. Further, she hasn’t put out waste in the community bin in eight months. “It’s all composted and goes back into my garden,” she says.

Sunderraman recalls attending a 2018 gig at Mumbai’s Famous Studio where a recycling station for cigarettes had one compartment for people to ash in and another for the butts. “There was already this conversation about what “sustainability” and being environmentally conscious in this extremely urban, consumerist environment means,” she says, citing the example of segregated dustbins at almost all the big festivals nowadays. It’s just as important for the messaging to be strong, for festivals to give attendees access to sustained campaigns and not mere one-offs if they wish to build real public awareness,” she adds.

founder and festival director of Echoes of Earth

A prominent zero-waste, zero-plastic music festival, which can reasonably be called India’s greenest, is Echoes of Earth (EOE). It has been held annually in Bengaluru for the past four years, and the organisers had managed to put up the very first edition by using 80 per cent junk material. Roshan Netalkar, the founder and festival director, came up with the idea for EOE after working in the entertainment industry and noticing how much wastage occurs in the production stage — all for a few hours of performances. “The natural resources in Bengaluru are depleting…it’s very alarming to see all the lakes disappearing, the trees being cut down. We felt the need to stand for something; good music is integral, but we wanted a concept which went beyond that. Now, when we drive around Bengaluru and see a pile of junk, we get excited! We think: Maybe we can reuse this to create a stage. We pick up the waste materials from junkyards, and then we return it when we’re done with it,” he says. As a way to further manage their carbon footprint, the organisers plant a tree for every ticket sold. When it launched, EOE was perhaps the only music-related event with a focus on providing an environmentally friendly experience.

From around 5,000 visitors in its first edition to a footfall of roughly 20,000 at their most recent one, the growth has been steady, Netalkar says. “We have to make sure we evolve in the right direction in terms of our ideology as well, and not just numbers,” he says. They’ve been ahead of the curve, but Netalkar is pleased to see other festivals catching up and ramping up their efforts to go green. He admits that the expenditure is twice as much as an average festival but says that the results are worth it. The aim is to balance sustainability with scale, and it is achievable once the correct systems are put in place.

After the first year of EOE, Netalkar wanted to enhance the nature of their messaging as well as the communications. They began to merge their aesthetic sensibility with ecology and education by working around specific themes for each edition. The theme of the second edition was “Bugs of the Ecosystem”, and this was followed by “Wonders of the Deep” (about marine conservation) and, most recently, “The Sanctuary”, where they focused on endangered and vulnerable species, spreading the message through outreach campaigns to colleges in addition to workshops, panel discussions, photo exhibits, stage design and installations at the venue. “It’s a big property, and when you walk around, there are many “wow” moments. There’s a lot of work that goes into it,” he says. For their fourth edition, they created a 100-foot-high installation using damaged drainpipes. And Netalkar has a dedicated research and development team that works round the year to find ways to make the event more sustainable.

The festival works with a range of local NGOs to raise awareness, and partners with cab aggregators to encourage carpool travel. They’ve tied up with waste management company Hasiru Dala Innovations and brought clean energy enterprise U-Solar on board to power the festival. They also partnered with the channel National Geographic Wild in 2019. It’s an all-round view aimed at controlling the negative effect on the environment. “Maybe it’s the vibe we create; anyone who comes here talks about positivity and revolution….” he says. Their communication via social media campaigns remains inclusive, and they try to steer clear of alarmist statements.

The endeavour is to continue making Echoes of Earth greener. From the early days, when they followed a no-plastic policy and used junk creatively, they’ve progressed to the point where they also compost all their waste and have started to use solar energy as well. “We’ve been able to add something new every year,” affirms Netalkar.

co-founder of Control Alt Delete

As a festival, Control Alt Delete survives on a feeling of togetherness: it is entirely crowdfunded. Co-founder Nikhil Udupa talks about how they set up this year’s edition — held in February at Roaring Farm in Malad, Mumbai — using existing materials found at the site, such as bamboo and waste cloth. “Basically,” says Udupa, “the gig happens in somebody’s backyard; it’s someone’s farm and not a ‘venue’. The idea is to not trash the space or leave behind anything that isn’t advantageous to the ground there. Given the community feeling we have built, people look out for each other.” In terms of production, they’ve reduced (but not yet eliminated) the use of flex banners that are detrimental to the environment.

“In the early days, it was just about delivering a good experience for consumers; I won’t say that we wanted to create a fuck-all scene or leave a lot of trash behind. But back then, everybody was busy concentrating on creating a formula and understanding what a good three-day, multi-stage festival can be,” he claims. In the past, Udupa has worked with artiste and event management company Only Much Louder, which organises NH7 Weekender, from 2012 to 2014, as well as with Pepsi MTV Indies, where he worked in marketing, content and programming from 2014 to 2017. As someone who’s seen plenty of gigs in the country and abroad, he draws on his experiences as a fan and vocal supporter of independent music in India to chart the path for music festivals here.

Udupa brings up the proclivity of artistic communities towards matters that extend beyond profitability. This could be part of the reason why festivals are open to adopting a holistic approach to sustainability and self-improvement, especially once the initial growing pains have been addressed. Today, the ecological health of the planet features as a priority for music festivals, and there’s also a stronger focus on elements such as personal health and mental wellness. For instance, Magnetic Fields, held annually at Alsisar Mahal in Rajasthan, houses the Magnetic Sanctuary, a safe space where festival-goers can do yoga and engage in other wellness activities.

co-founder of Cupable

This year, Control Alt Delete worked with Cupable, a young Mumbai start-up that provides reusable cups at events. Attendees had access to unlimited free water, with their only expense being the 50 rupees required to buy a Cupable cup. At other events, customers who bring the same mug back for refills are offered discounts on alcohol. Cupable refunds 30 rupees to the consumer if they return their cup (keeping the rest to recover production costs), thus allowing the company to reuse them for future events. By incentivising the act of reusing cups, the company engages with the audience and makes them conscious of their actions.

Coming into existence in August 2018, soon after single-use plastic was banned in Maharashtra, Cupable has been manufacturing and supplying cups made of polypropylene (or PP) — which are reusable and recyclable — to fast-food restaurants in Mumbai and live events. They have had a presence at a range of music festivals, including VH1 Supersonic and NH7 Weekender, as well as a number of regional-language festivals and mainstream gigs. One of their co-founders, Rahul Batra, says that they sterilise their cups at a separate facility, with each cup having a lifespan of roughly 150 washes. Prior to the lockdown, they had plans to get into reusable cutlery later this year.

founder of Skrap

In 2016, a massive fire broke out at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai. Divya Ravichandran experienced the fumes first-hand despite living in the faraway neighbourhood of Lower Parel. “I was stumped at what I saw: this thick cloud of smoke,” she says. It got her interested in waste management, so she started digging to see what the challenges are. “I was shocked to the core [upon visiting the ground],” she reveals. On seeing how the 1.3 square kilometres of trash was affecting the people in the area, she decided that she “couldn’t be a part of the problem” anymore. After considerable research, she set up a segregation system for herself and began to compost her wet waste. Ravichandran realised how much plastic she was using and slowly shifted to sustainable alternatives. Gradually, she transitioned to a zero-waste lifestyle, and throwing out trash has become a once-a-year affair for her. Recently, she celebrated three years of her waste management organisation, Skrap.

A bunch of pilot efforts, many of which crashed and burned, led to her establishing systems and practices that can efficiently handle waste management at festivals. “There was a lot of learning. You have to include all the stakeholders, every single person involved in the process,” she says. They started with NH7 Weekender in Pune in 2016, where they handled almost 7,000 kilos of waste, about 80 per cent of which was sent for recycling or composting. Today, Skrap undertakes the waste management for the NH7 Weekender festivals at Pune and Meghalaya, MBF in Mumbai and Magnetic Fields in Rajasthan, each of which comes with its own unique set of challenges. At MBF, 96 per cent of the waste is diverted from landfills.

There’s been a dramatic change in consumer behaviour. In 2016, they positioned separate dustbins intended for waste segregation at festivals. But many people assumed it was part of an anti-litter campaign: if one bin was full, they simply shifted to the other. Now, when Skrap volunteers offer to help audience members segregate their trash, the basis of which is separating the dry waste from the wet (though, at the end of the chain, the waste is segregated into as many as 18 different categories), many attendees will tell them that they’re aware of the process.

“Since music festivals have huge followings, they are in the right position to bring about a conversation about sustainability and conservation. They give us access to tens of thousands of people,” Ravichandran stresses. She adds, “We urge organisations to put out strong messaging about their events. For example, ‘Please bring your own water bottles’,” she says. At festivals, they’ll occasionally get the artistes to ask people to be mindful of the space. The idea, Ravichandran says, is to make it “sexy, cool and relevant”. So, Skrap avoids any preachy or negative language and keeps their signage concise. “Make sure that there’s no doom and gloom. That it’s inspiring and actionable. We don’t want to put out generic statements like ‘Go green’. Break it down, complement it with data. Like: ‘Do you know a million plastic bottles are used every minute?’” Ravichandran adds.

In the Indian festival scene, there’s been a tangible upswing as far as corporate support is concerned. Netalkar talks of the early days when companies would straightaway direct him to their CSR departments, while now, “almost all brands have a separate sustainable leg, even if it is in place purely for PR purposes”. Ravichandran singles out how the focus is usually on getting the waste collected. It’s a thought echoed by Udupa, who concedes that once the “housekeeping work” is over, many organisers remain unaware of where the waste ends up – which often happens to be a landfill. That last-mile operation remains a problem.

Ravichandran says organisers generally do return to them, and with far greater enthusiasm. Significant credit goes to the waste audit report that Skrap provides: a detailed document about how much waste is generated, with all of it weighed out in kilos. The company also provides a breakup of what’s recyclable, biodegradable and reusable; the amount of plastic versus paper; and possible suggestions for the next edition. Skrap offers various levels of sustainability adoption for festivals to choose from. “A lot of the work we do is focused on creating awareness. Policing or enforcing will always have negative associations,” she says. “We make it cool,” she reiterates.

Is being eco-friendly merely a fad? “I’m really okay with that!” Sunderraman responds. “Please think of it as a cool thing and be super loud about it. Whether you’re doing it for a selfie or whatever, it doesn’t matter to me!”

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