Silk from the sewer

ISABELLA PORRAS

Green bushels of mulberry swaying in the wind

The untouched power of wastewater

A journey to silk

Wastewater, a common enough sight dripping and swirling through storm drains and snaking its way around the bustling city of Bengaluru.

Yet the 1400 million litres of wastewater produced each day is rich with untapped potential for many in a city rushing towards a water crisis.

Muniraju

Nestled on the edge of the city lies the small but vibrant town of Vijayapura.

Markets alive with a chorus of sound and colour, a town persevering amid the mounting pressure of water scarcity.

The farmers of Vijayapura have long been the first to feel the tightening grip of climate change upon them, as temperatures rise and rain fails to fall.

Although not all hope is lost, mulberry farmer Muniraju K.V has been quietly weaving a life for himself with wastewater.

He has recognised its power to provide a sustainable solution to the water woes of his city and ensure that his family are left with a lasting legacy.

Two hours out of Bengaluru, as the city becomes distant along the stretch of highway, scattered fields of farmland fill the landscape.

In a country where more than 40% of the workforce is reliant on agriculture, the ever-looming issue of climate change is a very real concern.

Muniraju has spent the last fifteen years diverting wastewater to his farm and has emerged from years of hardship as a pioneer in his town.

He is a master of his craft, slowly tending to the rich green leaves of mulberry which after an intricate process create the flowing silk sarees of India.

Weaving silk sarees

Karnataka has long been India’s largest creator of silk, its threads dating back hundreds of years, providing livelihoods for many.

Weaving silk sarees

~

As water continually becomes scarce it has proven difficult to persevere as a farmer.

Yet the rich tradition of cultivating and growing mulberry silk can still be found, hidden amongst the winding alleyways of Muniraju’s town.

Standing tall amongst his mulberry plants swaying gently in the wind, Muniraju, well dressed with a woven cloth thrown over his shoulder looks proudly upon his hectare of land.

Diverting wastewater

“I have been on this farm since I was a child, and now I am forty-five. After our borewell ran dry I was forced to work on someone else’s land for over five years,” Muniraju said.

Though enduring those years of adversity, he has persevered, turning to wastewater as an answer to his struggles.

Nearly twenty years ago growing ragi and beetroot were enough to sustain his family.

Yet amidst intense changes in India’s climate and severe unequal water distribution in Bengaluru, Muniraju was forced to leave all that behind.

Rapid urbanisation in a constantly morphing city has meant those on the frayed edges have been neglected.

Despite its intricate waterways, the city of Bengaluru has yet to extend its reach to those living on the periphery.

Tending the mulberry crop

Vishwanath Srikantaiah, a water conservation expert, civil engineer and urban planner, notes that unfair distribution of water is the main issue for those on the edge.

With 75% of the city able to instantly receive piped water, the other 25% are left struggling day to day.

As he wanders through his sprawling fields of mulberry, running his hands through the leaves, Muniraju remembers the years spent as a landless labourer.

The endless depths of the borewell had sucked his land dry and water was nowhere to be found.

Five long years he worked in the soil of others, to sustain his small family.

Yet Muniraju persisted and during the rainy season the gushing wastewater spilling onto his farm sparked an idea.

Cleverly diverting the sewerage into two low pits in the earth, the swirling black water swept through his land, giving life to his thirsty crops.

A simple solution to an overflowing problem in Bengaluru.

The pressure of each new day and the scarcity of water will no longer be as large of an issue for famers turning to non-edible crops.

Wastewater diversion (By Isabella Porras)

Vishwanath, also a friend of Muniraju, spoke of his innovative process of utilising wastewater to grow mulberry.

“He doesn’t require an eco-STP (sewerage treatment plant) there is no process needed, you take raw wastewater and stock it in a nearby pond and then you distribute it to the nearby fields to grow mulberry.”

“It’s shit to silk.”

“By shifting from edible to non-edible crops, Muniraju can show the way for many farmers as to how to use the city’s wastewater, treated or untreated in a productive fashion.”

The sheer enormity of wastewater in India has reached a critical point.

Nearly 62 billion litres of sewerage churning throughout the country and only 37% able to be treated.

Though many in the city can learn from the resilience of farmers like Muniraju and his simple cycle of sustainability.

~

Led through the winding fields of mulberry, Muniraju remarks on the high quality of his plants soaking the nutrients from the sewerage.

He motions to another farm adjacent to his own, where fields of mulberry also grow. Yet the plants from this land are fed from the depths of a borewell.

A striking difference can be seen, Muniraju’s own crops, a deep green, stand tall against the sky.

Whereas his fellow farmers’ mulberry is shorter and the leaves much smaller in size.

These immediate differences are not the only factors confirming the quality of sewerage silk; the silkworms who feast on Muniraju’s leaves thrive on his mulberry, and confirm the high quality of the lush plants.

Silkworm

The International Journal of Chemical Studies reported in 2018 that silkworm cocoon yield was increased by plants irrigated by wastewater.

Mulberry fed directly from sewerage are engorged from their meal, which due to the higher amounts of phosphorous and potassium in the soil produce a higher quality of leaves.

Mulberry leaves

Although Muniraju has been successful in his determination to push through water scarcity it has not come without its challenges. T

he steady increase in the climates’ temperature has been evident, and under Muniraju’s attentive eyes he has felt the slow pressure build.

Years ago, he could have watered his crops every ten days.

Yet with the parched soil increasing every year he now has to tend to his mulberry every few days for their survival.

Muniraju

Tied down by policy and procedure, the government have been on the fence with agricultural uses of wastewater.

This has not cowed Muniraju, who cleverly is working within the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for wastewater management.

“There is a lot of backlash from researchers and public health organisations who are caught up in polices who say its pollution and dangerous, rather than seeing the benefits.”

“But the WHO sanitation safety plan gives Muniraju legal ability to fund his farm the way he has,” Vishwanath commented.

The shift from edible to non-edible crops such as mulberry has woven Muniraju successful threads of opportunity.

He has then shared his knowledge with his fellow agriculturists.

Often called to the farms of others to lend his skills and guide them to sustainably harness sewerage water.

“Some of the farmers in Vijayapura have taken my advice and started growing mulberry and now are making a comfortable living, despite the challenges,” Muniraju said.

Not only has Muniraju secured his family’s future with his innovative sewerage silk, but it has sustained jobs for a string of families in his town, who can now continue to produce raw silk for the Indian market.

~

Muniraju’s resourceful use of wastewater not only has provided Vijayapura with a sustainable waste management system, but each stage of the intricate silk story has been tended to by a local family.

From Muniraju’s mulberry to the silkworm’s delicate transformation to cocoons and finally the reeling of the raw silk ready to be woven into sarees.

Raw silk threads

Hardly two kilometres from his farm, a small family of sericulturist’s are nestled on the edges of Vijayapura.

Quietly ushered into dark rooms of the silkworms, Muniraju looks proudly on the squirming ivory worms, hungrily feeding on his mulberry.

Stacked high to the ceiling are bamboo beds filled with a rich mix of green leaves and white wriggling bodies.

The soft chewing of the worms reverberates around the room like the patter of rainfall as they enjoy their meal.

Sericulturist and silk worms

The silkworms are then raised for twenty-eight days, which by then they are finally ready to complete their journey to silk.

Baskets brimming with silkworms are placed beside large bamboo mounts known as chandranki.

The worms, fat with mulberry, are scattered round the bamboo in deft movements where they will then form their delicate silk cocoons.

Silk cocoons

Finally, the silk cocoons are harvested and ready for the next stage – reeling.

Reeling

Hidden amongst the alleyways of Vijaypura, led by the deafening mechanical clacking of silk reels, Muniraju ducks into the small family-run business.

Rows of coarse yellow silk wheels are in constant motion.

Reeling the silk

The members of the family who run the reeling business move through the aisles with precision, quick to notice when a thread is loose.

Muniraju’s sewerage mulberry, in its simple yet clever beginnings, have sustained these small family businesses on the edge of Bengaluru.

Finally, the silk has been wound tightly into golden reels, ready to be sold and woven into a silk sari.

Power looms weaving silk

Handlooms have slowly faded out of popularity, with factories in the city preferring the rapid movements of the power loom.

The act of the raw silk, threaded into a sari is mesmerising, as the rhythmic clanging of the metal looms combine to create a vibrant silk pattern.

~

Weaving silk sarees

From humble beginnings of wastewater mulberry, to the families who tend to the delicate silkworms and the reeling of raw silk, and finally to the sari weavers.

A silken magic from sewerage has been created.

This culmination of the silk trail of Vijayapura has provided both a livelihood for family businesses and a sustainable solution to wastewater management.

Muniraju’s utilisation of wastewater is just one story of many famers in Bengaluru who have fought back against rising water scarcity, and show that there is hope yet for India’s farmers.

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