Is it possible to live in houses made entirely of natural materials? It is possible to use the sun, wind and rain for creating highly energy-efficient, carbon-neutral, stunning abodes, with perhaps even a living roof with live plants? Is it possible to grow your own food organically, make compost with kitchen waste, keep chickens as pets and for eggs, make your own bread, jams, jellies, sauces, pickles, pizzas?
Shagun Singh doesn’t just think so. She shows you how.
Twenty-five kilometers from Nainital in the hills of Uttarakhand, Shagun has set up a learning centre unlike any other. Here, amidst the lush green trees and fresh air, she teaches students how to build earth-friendly buildings.
You don’t need a degree to do so: “One of the key concepts we focus on is to get over the societal myth that you need to be a trained architect or engineer to build your own house or that it is impractical and difficult to live responsibly,” assures Shagun.
The techniques she demonstrates include the earthbag technique (which was developed to provide low-cost housing, and even lunar housing, using bags filled with earthen materials), and cob building (using hands and feet to form lumps of earth mixed with sand and straw, and make homes in organic shapes).
Besides many other techniques of making homes (adobe hobbit caves, bamboo lofts, anyone?), you can also do a permaculture design course, which is the “harmonious integration of environment and people”.
And people are lining up to learn. Shagun’s month-long courses are mostly sold out and the waiting list goes into many months. Her students come from all over the world, and go back with vivid memories and a connectedness with the planet they’d never imagined. And it’s all the grand vision of a woman driven by a cause greater than herself.
Born in Patna to a businessman father and a social-worker mother, Shagun moved to Delhi in her teens, where she studied political science from Delhi University followed by an MBA in finance and marketing. After several years in the corporate world, she felt as if something was missing from her life.
So she quit her job in 2015, and a year later, launched Geeli Mitti, which translates to ‘wet earth’.
The farm, which is in Pangot, is part of her Geeli Mitti Foundation, which also works with women’s groups among many other social empowerment projects. Shagun got her permaculture design certification from renowned teacher Rico Zook, and now teaches others.
Her workshops are fun and healthy – besides building, there is a bit of yoga and martial arts as well, and students can go down to a nearby stream to take a dip now and then.
The idea, as Shagun puts it, is to learn to live life in accordance with nature and the local resources. “Natural buildings are made with a focus on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful or renewable resources, as well as those that, while recycled or salvaged, produce healthy living environments and maintain indoor air quality,” she explains.
Shagun gives an example from the 2015 Nepal earthquake, when some of the only structures left standing where those made with the earthbag technique. “The idea is to lessen the environmental impact of buildings without sacrificing comfort or health,” she says.
By using only locally available materials, cost is minimized, and there is no ecological damage. Energy is acquired from natural methods, and alternate sewage treatments and water reuse systems are built in.
The 36-year-old’s workshops are reasonably priced and are inclusive of accommodation and food. A month-long workshop in natural building costs Rs 18000, and there are courses for longer durations as well.
Weekend workshops on bee-keeping, plastering and mud building cost between Rs 3000 to 5000, and the 15-day Permaculture Design Certification course costs Rs 37000.
The income from workshops helps Shagun sustain the costs of the farm and foundation. She had to sell all her assets including her house and car, and withdraw all her savings to launch this labour of love. “I decided not to have any investors so that our values don’t get compromised because of excessive profit motive,” she explains.
Constantly busy with coordinating workshops and handling logistics, Shagun has an earthy demeanour and speaks with an amiable humility that comes after years of self-growth. And she’s passing it on to her students, who only have glowing reviews to leave about their stay with her.
Geeli Mitti’s ethos is pretty much the last word: “We believe in chasing happiness.”
First published in the July 2018 issue of eShe magazine