The world is talking about Sustainable Development and to achieve the goals, the concept of ‘Circular Economy’ is being pushed. Circular Economy is seen as an alternative to ‘traditional’ linear economy based on the principle of ‘take, make, use and dispose’. In India, the traditional concept has always been the circular economy, where resources are used until the user have extracted its maximum value followed by recovery and regeneration of products and materials at the end of each service life. The history of India speaks for itself right from ancient times to present, proving how we have lived the much-buzzed concept of “sustainability”.

India's colonial history                                                                                                                      With the advent of Industrial Revolution in Britain, the situation in India changed drastically. It is an undisputed fact that that British-led industrialization of Europe resulted in de-industrialization of India in the middle of the 19th century. The incoming of western culture has brought with it new ideas and advances, which in the name of modernisation has corrupted the traditional way of life practiced for centuries in India. 

The country which understandingly practised sustainable development somewhere lost its track with colonial resource exploitation  along with influence of market forces, industrialization, capitalism, globalisation and most importantly India's efforts to gain the tag of a “Developed Nation” post- independence. 

The pace of exploitation of natural resources in last few decades has put a lot of pressure on present generation to work immediately to protect resources for the future generation. The world is signing treaties to cut down carbon dioxide emissions and protect the ozone layer by curbing Green House Gases (GHG) emissions, framing Sustainable Development goals (SDGs), and thinking about every possible solution to the consequences of climate change. By understanding resource endowment limitations, it is imperative to facilitate a shift to sustainable lifestyles with a low carbon footprint as an alternative. 

Circular economy – Unearthing Indian historical roots                                                      In India, sustainable and environment friendly traditional practices continue to be part of peoples’ lives. This country is a place where you still find usage of biodegradable platters, clay utensils, stone grinders, household products made from jute and other natural material and so on. In recent times, India’s trade statistics has observed a growth in the export market for sustainably produced commodities like leaf-made biodegradable plates, Neem stems used as an alternative for chemical based toothpaste, jute bags, etc. 

Depending upon the geography, different regions have a different traditional system of rainwater harvesting like PAAR and khadin system in Jaisalmer, Tankas in Bikaner, Baoli in Gujarat, Ahar pynes in Bihar along with innovative ways to preserve groundwater. Similarly, traditional agriculture practices like jhumming in North-eastern India, mixed farming approach of utera, and the benvar system (which does not require ploughing as it hurts mother Earth according to belief in tribal belts of Madhya Pradesh) portrays the genius of Indian traditional engineering technologies that directly promote undertaking sustainable agriculture practices. 

The origin of civilization in India dates back to 3300BC with Indus Valley Civilization, also known as Harappan Civilization. The well-ordered wastewater drainage, trash collection systems, great public bath (Mohenjo-Daro) and common granaries all point to a sustainable way of life. The genesis of pottery and earthenware dates back to this era which was privy to the relationship crafts enjoy with natural wealth. The use of utensils made of copper, bronze, lead and tin points towards circular culture. 

Use of eco-friendly products to make buildings, herbal paints, lime mortar (water proof), adamantine glues and binders, perfumes, for horticulture etc. have been jotted down in India’s ancient vedic texts related to engineering and technology. The endurance of buildings, the beauty of idols and wall cravings show us the use and sustainability of eco-friendly products. 

The traditional Indian literature of Jain, Vedic, Buddhist culture and Kautilya's Arthshastra in Mauryan Period also speaks for itself when it comes to understanding the ecological system and harmony with nature. According to Indian philosophy, humans, earth, and universe are seen as an organic-whole which is also depicted by Yogic practices. 

The medieval Indian culture dominated by Mughals has given us very beautiful examples of sustainable lifestyles in the form of architecture of monuments. The design of Jharokas (windows in Hawa Mahal), Roshandans (Ventilation Window), and Jalis (window nets) in these monuments depicts the ways to cope of with hot and humid climate of India through air circulation without artificial and environment damaging air conditioners. The Baori system of water harvesting shows the engineering and technical expertise of our ancestors which was used not just for water retention but for moderating external local temperature as water has heat absorbing capacity. 

In India, religion too protects and nurtures nature. In Hinduism, people worship the sun, trees, plants, water, and Earth. Wildlife conservation is also related to worship and respect of snake, cow, lion, peacock, owl etc. Forests are seen as sacred groves since ancient times dedicated to local deities as seen in Niyamgiri Hills, Orissa; Oraans in Rajasthan, Kavus in Kerala; Sarnas in Bihar; Law Kyntangs in Meghalaya etc. It can be seen as traditional means of biodiversity conservation protecting all forms of life inhabiting these groves. 

India’s holistic development lies in imbibing the traditional way of living                     India is home to many practices, techniques and innovative ideas which are either hidden in remote areas or have not gained exposure due to local nature. Our ancestors have lived in harmony with nature and such practices are inherited from generation to generation and are still prevalent in some parts of the country. The fifth target of SDG 12 is to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. The action plan to achieve the target lies in our traditions and India has potential to teach the world how it is done by going back to our roots and traditions.

(This article is contributed by Aakansha Choudhary who is working as a Programme Associate in CUTS International at the Centre for Consumer Action Research & Training. She holds a Masters degree in Urban Policy and Governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai)