Dream of a Green City

Food shortage? Far from it! MBA graduates Kern Agrawal and his friends in Chennai, India, demonstrate how green urbanity can be a reality

By Maheshwarappa & Sujata Devadas, October 06, 2016

Angry protests ravage the streets when food shortage beleaguers a 1.2 billion Indian population. Market prices skyrocket. Every day, 3,000 children die of starvation in India.

Adequate intake of proteins and nutrients plummets, when cheaper farming products fit the average household budget better. In no way do accusations between ‘democratic’ political parties resolve an alarming food scarcity problem. 

Living roofs

Somehow, it completely escapes the city dweller’s tunnelled vision that they do NOTHING to contribute food supply to an ever-expanding immigrant rural population lured into the city for ostensibly plum indoor jobs. School curriculums promote this. Construction of roads, flyovers and buildings to house this rising urban manpower, systematically wipes out all greenery. Restricting household expenditure with cheap substitutes for farm produce seems the only option for dissatisfied, disgruntled families.

 But, ‘living roofs’ may be the answer. It has worked elsewhere. Lush greens dot many European cityscapes. American Associate Scientist and Plant Evaluation Manager at the Chicago Botanic Garden Richard Hawke calls it “the ever-more-popular topic of green roofs!”.

Beginning in 2009, he conducted a five-year research on a Green Roof Garden. Out of 40,000 plants that were grown in this garden, 30,568 of them were still alive in 2014.

200 years ago and now

Urban agriculture in Europe





Right at the top, India is mentioned as a dire example of food scarcity. Has it all ‘gone south’? It definitely looks like it. 

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 Definite possibility

Digging into soil, down south

‘Down south’ in cosmopolitan Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu state, The Urban Farmers (TUF) began an experimental business project in July 2014, on the unused rooftop of their college, the Loyola Institute of Business Administration (LIBA). In the sweaty sweltering heat of India’s sixth largest city, five MBA degree holders, clueless about agriculture, began ‘An Urban Farming Project’ to cultivate plants organically. Find this funny?

The first green offshoots sprouted across the entire roof a month later. A year later, TUF hit the headlines as Chennai’s mainstream newspaper ‘The Hindu’ with 22 lakh readers, featured their crop bounty under the segment ‘Society’.

“Ignorance spells ‘challenges’,” admits co-founder Kern Agrawal. “One genuine concern was whether it would damage the LIBA roof and building.” 

 True enough, city-dwellers suspect that roof gardening can damage their building with fissures, fractures and cracks causing rifts in the construction.  Buildings in India are constructed in compliance with IS875 (Part 2) – the 1987 code for design loads for buildings and structures. As per the code, the roof of a building must support a minimum load of 150kN/m2. Buildings that comply with the code are safe for urban agriculture.

Additionally, there must be a water-proof agent protecting the roof, so that irrigating the plants does not lead to leakage that corrodes rebars (reinforcing steel bars), impacting the building’s sturdiness.

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Kern Agarwal, shows crops cultivated on the LIBA rooftop

“After experimenting with many options.” says Kern, “we put together a safe, easy-to-move, relatively economical set-up that prevented such damage. LIBA was a testament to finding the right solution. We have replicated it in other smaller home projects.”

They grew success 

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Ranjini holds up cabbage harvested  on LIBA's living roof by 'The Urban Farmers'

Raking up dry leaves fallen on the LIBA campus grounds as organic vermicompost, Kern Agrawal, Kenneth Lowe, Karan Maheshwary, Ashwin Kurisinkal and Mathews Cherickal, chose biodynamic farming to grow vegetables on a 5,000 sq.ft. area.

They hit success.

They took part in several exhibitions and farmers’ markets and are now in talks with corporate companies to establish a Food Park.

They have also put together customisable kits for setting up farms on roof tops or vacant land. The kit contains soil, manure, a seed of choice, resources required for irrigation and the protection of roof tops. From start to finish, the TUF team, including trainees, help set up the farm, and pay weekly visits during the first month to follow up. For lands larger than 2,000 sq.ft. they offer additional support to clean up the area and make the land suitable for planting.

Chennai has a reputation for water shortage problems. Out of the 28 TUF projects, only 2 faced irrigation snafus in the summer. The team left the soil mulched until the rains started.

The Hindu newspaper article put TUF in touch with a large audience. They have lost count of the number of people with whom they have shared their urban farming experiences. Last October, they helped the SANKALP Open School and The Learning Centre to plant greens.

Going global 

Urban agriculture is not new. When men throughout America were conscripted into the armed forces during World War I, farming and food production suffered. To resolve the impending food scarcity, hunger and starvation, former American President Woodrow Wilson took a brilliant initiative by giving the American public permission to cultivate food crops wherever there was free land. This mitigated the food problem during the war.

It helped again during the Second World War. By this time, 5.5 million people grew 2,267 tons of fruits and vegetables annually in this ‘National Victory Garden’.

Japan and South Korea reap rich rewards from urban agriculture. In Seoul, South Korea, the Samsung building on the outskirts of the city grows pine trees on the third floor attracting birds such as South Korea’s national bird, the Gaatchi, that can be seen flying in and out of the building. That, in essence, is a vindication of the success of urban cultivation.


Terrace farming among urbanites could foster: 


  • Physical exercise so essential for robust health; 

  • Increase the supply of fresh, locally-grown vegetables and fruits for a tastier nutritious diet; 

  • Weave amiable social bonds, if the terrace garden is a collective effort, creating good cheer and peace of mind;

  • More awareness about how we grow our food; there are many lessons on the internet regarding urban agricultural ventures and the rewards reaped.

  • Love for nature with people spending more time outdoors — away from televisions and digital devices — tending to their gardens and working towards a greener future.

Right now, however, state governments in India sway to the vagaries of earning votes in elections. As temporary succour, bags of rice are gifted, loans advertised. Such short-term appeasements do not ease a farmer’s burden as rural incentives pale into insignificance.

Agriculture is given short shrift in the school curriculum. City kids hurl their school bags into a corner and run out to play. With no playgrounds, they play on the streets. Accidents result. Indian road-related mortality is shocking.

Urban agriculture can help keep children engaged and off the streets. Roofs of school buildings can be used for this purpose. In South Korea, schoolchildren compete in growing vegetables and are awarded prizes for their valuable organic cultivation.

Thinking of tomorrow

India’s massive population may be regarded as a burden, but it is nonetheless a robust resource. Using rooftops, balconies and vacant plots to grow food blows away the limited, truncated view of agriculture as a rural way of life. Evident in many nations, it can be perfectly well-adapted to urban environs. Abundance of home-cultivated produce that exceed a family’s needs, can be shared with others or donated to wipe out starvation and poverty.

Urban greenery reduces air pollution decisively. In summer, it shelters the building from the heat. In winter, it provides insulation preventing the loss of heat. Sounds generated by traffic bounces off concrete walls and building surfaces. But plants absorb the sound. 

Joining the urban farmers would be several steps in the right direction.

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