A match in green

Peter Singh and Sarparveen (Neeno) Kaur make the Singh household seem like a carefully crafted marvel,  with homegrown vegetables and meals, built and grown over a long time.
Greenhouse at the Singh residence. (Photo | Express)
Greenhouse at the Singh residence. (Photo | Express)

Peter Singh, 78, and Sarparveen (Neeno) Kaur, 70, are nurturing about 10,000 plants at their home in Sainik Farms, Delhi. What they grow, ends up on their plate. The wastes generated power their produce. While sustainable living is a buzzword in a lot of mission statements and research papers, the couple has implemented a design that many still believe to be impossible or much too expensive – through aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a method of farming that uses water from fish tanks to irrigate and grow plants. The water, rich in ammonia because of its fish-waste content, is converted into nitrates and nitrites and becomes a natural fertiliser for plants. In turn, the plants help produce clean water, which is fit for the survival of the fish.  

Peter Singh and Neeno Kaur
Peter Singh and Neeno Kaur

The Singhs’ home is a delightful combination of tradition and the new. With natural sandstone and limewash being the only materials used, it is truly a sustainable household. Singh’s parents hail from Jalandhar, Punjab. Shields from the Anglo-Sikh wars, a giant wok used to cook chana for the army, and a howdah or an elephant saddle with a canopy are spotted in their home. The outside – the backyard and the rooftop – is their home-grown response to the way things are. “In cities, green vegetables are usually grown near places through which sewage flows because they receive a lot of water there. But that is not healthy at all. So, we decided to grow our own vegetables,” Singh says.

‘He designs it, I grow it’

A student of mathematics from Delhi’s St Stephen’s college, Singh always had a keen interest in the sciences and architecture. It was his passion to do something innovative that took the young couple from Delhi back to their family farm in Jalandhar. Here, they gained essential knowledge that would help them set up their successful agritecture – a portmanteau of agriculture and architecture –  model. “He designs it, I grow it,” Kaur says simply.

The ‘technology’ used for their aquaponics model is elements of nature. Delhi’s air is detrimental to the growth of plants. A filtration system at the entrance of their house uses wood shavings and flowing water to purify air – similar to how air coolers function.

A series of plants, which do not need direct sunlight for growth, grow near the entrance with the help of a full spectrum UV light and water from the fish tanks carried by Singh’s engineered pipeline. This water comes from two large fish tanks in their backyard, which are home to freshwater carps. Initially, they used commercial fish feed but now, they make their own with mustard oil cakes.

“We have stopped ordering anything from outside,” says Kaur. “Before, when we had food from outside, we would feel sluggish. Now we make everything at home. We found that we don’t need to buy commercial products for our plants too; it can all be done at home,” she states. The water in the fish tanks irrigates the hundreds of heads of lettuce, spinach, kale, celery and mint in the small greenhouses on the ground floor of their house. The fertiliser, a mixture of household waste compost and coco peat, along with neem oil pesticide, finish their lineup of all-natural elements that power their organic produce.  

The rooftop is dedicated more to fruits. These plants are watered by harvested rainwater and recycled grey water from their home. Although the couple are waiting for some trees to bear fruit, the qumquat tree has given them enough to make a jar of marmalade.

Heirloom tomatoes
Heirloom tomatoes

An organic life

Both Singh and Kaur take pride in calling themselves chefs. They have started a farm-to-table concept, where they do a pop-up lunch every Sunday, send out invites for the menu and prepare food from different cuisines. They have had French, Japanese and Lebanese dishes on their table – all made with fresh produce they have grown. The dish  Salad Nicoise was made with lettuce, tomatoes and beans from their greenhouse.

With homegrown vegetables and meals, the couple feel energised and fit. While the air quality in Delhi remains at a constant ‘unhealthy’, with a high concentration of PM 2.5, the air inside the Singh home is ‘healthy’ and makes breathing seem much easier. When asked if they have trouble adjusting to the air pollution outside, they say, “We don’t feel the need to go out. We feel so happy and healthy in this atmosphere that we don’t wish  to leave,” they say unanimously.

Kaur will surely draw some envious looks from Delhiites with her next statement: “We have almost no dust in our home. No regular dusting exercises are needed at our house,” she says joyously.

A green future

Although Singh’s designs are innovative, he is not planning to file for patents. “My plan is to share my knowledge with others. We have to live sustainably, otherwise there is no future for our children,” he says matter-of-factly. They have built models for aquariums, balconies, rooftops and gardens for homes that do not have as much space as theirs.

To disseminate their knowledge to the public, the couple have started giving online classes, where Singh teaches how to recreate the technology in their own homes and Kaur teaches how to grow the plants. They want to make the design and upkeep of the aquaponics system a family activity. “This is why we charge only for one member and encourage other members of the family to join the classes,” says Singh.

They also have plans to advance their system of aquaponics. Although the ratio of water to plants in their aquaponics system is 1:10, with one being the number of plants, the couple plans to become completely self-reliant by recreating an atmospheric water generation system for their water needs.

For electricity, they plan to harvest solar, wind and hydro energy. Their ultimate goal is to build community greenhouses powered by aquaponics systems. “Don’t build expensive systems. Make simple systems with locally available materials,” he advises.

The Singh household seems like a carefully crafted marvel, built and grown over a long time. While the benefits are plenty, the young generation can complain about the lack of time to follow through with the aquaponics project. To those who would just settle for buying expensive organic food from supermarkets, Kaur advises that you “respect your body and have a passion for living a clean life. The rest will follow”.

For online classes, contact aanantaquaponics@gmail.com

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The New Indian Express