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What’s your cause célèbre?

There I was, standing at the Gateway of India, alongside myriad protestors who were decrying the violence against students in Delhi. Just as I was feeling at one with my fellow citizens, a loud ringtone pierced through the cries of “Azaadi.” I looked around and saw a Gucci sneaker clad young woman behind me fumble for her phone, in her Balenciaga handbag. “Hello, haan Shashi, I’ve been trying to reach you. Can you come for my hair colour tomorrow,” I overheard her say. Protest or no protest, life must go on.

It is a new year and a new decade and a cause célèbre is like the new IT bag. If you don’t have one, I suggest you get one pronto. With the Citizenship Amendment Act and intrusions on to campuses, a new generation is increasingly politicised. Those who aren’t protesting these lightening rod national issues are railing against others. The climate crisis, for example. Plenty of us know people who are giving up on plastics, meats and dairy. And solar is the new black.

All around us people are fighting the good fight. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past week, the Impossible Foods company unveiled Impossible Pork — to provide a vegetarian, gluten free, animal free alternative to the world’s most widely consumed meat. Patrick Brown, the company’s CEO, said, “We won’t stop until we eliminate the need for animals in the food chain and make the global food system sustainable.” This may sound like hyperbole, but there is a whole lot of evidence to suggest that animal husbandry is a huge contributor to the planet’s destruction.

Impossible Pork Char Siu Buns at the Impossible Foods press event at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas
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Closer to home, I know plenty of people exploring more efficient farming methods. Hydroponics — which avoids using soil (and, therefore, uses less water) to grow vegetables — is one catching on like those Australian bush fires. I am as likely to encounter anxious cocktail party chatter on the precarious state of the world, what with the US-Iran tensions, as I am about India’s food security. The US-Iran issue typically involves probing questions like ‘What’s going to happen to our flight paths?’ and ‘Should we fly Arab airlines?’ But the food issue elicits slightly more informed blather. At a soiree last weekend, I stumbled upon a conversation where two private equity types were discussing crop yields and nutrient solutions like wizened old farmers. “I’ve leased 45 acres for hydroponics because water is going to be our biggest issue,” said PE #1, with great earnestness. “I’ve created a vegetable garden on my terrace,” replied the other, looking somewhat deflated.

Then there’s fashion. Those of us who were mortified to learn that each pair of jeans uses 7,600 litres of water are looking to the industry to lead the way in sustainability. It is a conundrum because, after all, fashion is predicated on the idea of buying more. A close friend who is impassioned about this issue asked me to vow not to buy one new thing for a year. I replied, with some trepidation, that I would try. After all, new year resolutions are ultimately about faith — in one’s own willpower.

In the dawn of this new decade, India faces many of our old challenges (hunger, malnutrition, poor public health services, agrarian distress — the list is long), and many new ones, including the aforementioned water shortages and abysmal air quality. In the absence of political will, perhaps it is up to those at the very top of the income bracket to rise to the occasion. Azim Premji led the way by giving $7.6 billion to his charity last year, as reported by Forbes. Will other wealthy Indians follow suit? As anxiety prevails, so does hope.

This fortnightly column tracks the indulgent pursuits of the one-percenters.

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