Sustainability will drive transformation in a post-COVID world, says Niranjan Khatri, Founder, iSambhav

Will Post Covid-19 be a harbinger of change for the Indian hotel industry, even as it helps us focus attention on national and global public health? Khatri sheds light on the subject

Niranjan Khatri, ISambhav, Hotel news, Sustainability, Post COVID-19, Hospitality post COVID-19

Earth-shaking events in our nation’s history appear to vindicate that assumption. The aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 led to the establishment of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) in less than a year, in 1985, which is a record in a country seeped in administrative and bureaucratic red tape.

The tragedy had global repercussions too. The CMA (Chemical Manufacturers Association of America), post the Bhopal tragedy, voluntarily tightened rules on chemical safety for its industry members even before the US government could mandate tough new rules.

This proactive measure by CMA convinced the regulators that the chemical industry was serious about industrial safety. After 9/11, in 2001, airport security protocols changed rapidly with stringent and rigorous checks instituted for passengers at all airports across the world. Similarly, hotel security architecture swiftly changed in India after the Mumbai terror attack in 2008.

The effect on the hospitality

So, how has Covid19 impacted the hospitality sector? The scale of the current crisis has brought the global economy to a grinding halt. The hotel industry has quickly scrambled to create a new “contactless” service design to be relevant in the present times.

It has done so by putting many appropriate COVID-centric social distancing systems in place. It is an opportune time for the industry to re-examine and explore opportunities to make its service design resource and cost-efficient.

To begin with, businesses must apply the lessons learned from the crisis to ensure that their systems are more resilient and their products, processes and business models more sustainable and resource-efficient to prevent future shocks. Like the CMA, the industry has an opportunity to take proactive steps.

Its management leadership has a pivotal role to play as the engine of growth and development of local economies. Social stability and economic stability ultimately go hand-in-hand. A business will be successful when societies are successful and vice versa. 

The impact of the climate crisis

While we are dealing with the aftermath of COVID, we should not forget the climate crisis, which is creeping on us. It will have a much larger impact on the economy when compared to the present health crisis.

As early as the 1990s, several pandemic scenarios were forecast only to be ignored as a sci-fi movie. While we have innumerable tools like GRI (Global Reporting Initiatives), CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) and Earth Over Shoot day, their impact in slowing the growth of consumerism and hence natural resource exploitation, falls dramatically short.

Concepts such as green economy, circular economy, ramping up the use of renewable energy (RE), and ensuring that the intermittency of RE is overcome with R&D on energy storage technologies, is the need of the hour.

The ancient heritage of India had sustainability woven into the very fabric of its 5000-year-old civilization. Unfortunately, we have now begun to abandon its past wisdom at the altar of modernisation and globalisation. We have to revive the old time-honoured practices by adopting resource-modest practices in every aspect of life, from homes and hotels to offices, which are, in my view, over-designed with material and natural-resource intensive features.

Recipe for change

I recall the time I began my journey of sustainable development over three decades ago, in Port Blair. Many were bemused with our ‘outlandish’ practices, but it helped us to reduce our operating costs and set new standards. We began with very basic changes in hotel operating practices such as reducing paper consumption, implementing a dual piping system for water optimisation, segregating waste, converting wet waste into manure, converting spent oil into soap, introducing afforestation in the islands and intuitively moving away from placing additional pressure on landfill sites.

In the process, we realised how insignificant our initiatives were about the bigger challenges faced by the world and that realisation led us to start a tourism guild to sensitise and engage with governmental agencies on sound environmental policies and regulations.

We nudged them to make rainwater harvesting mandatory, adopt eco-tourism practices to reduce the negative footprint of tourism and blend social issues like vocational training of orphan boys for suitable hotel operations. Today, due to changes in the law, many of the above practices are mandatory, but being performed reluctantly with uneven results.

Social distancing from nature

It is often said that crisis comes with immense opportunities. It is good to see the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality (FAITH), an umbrella body representing the issues of the tourism sector, work collaboratively on the policy front with the Government of India (GOI) to come out of the COVID quagmire to protect millions of jobs.

Just as the CAA took some proactive steps to develop stringent safety protocols post the Bhopal tragedy, FAITH has an opportunity to engage with policymakers in the areas beyond the COVID-centric economic agenda. FAITH, together with various business associations must request the GOI to pursue radical policy initiatives to address the interlinked issues of public health, climate emergency, water stress and food security so that businesses in the future have a built-in resilience to withstand future mega shocks like Covid-19.

To this end, these are some suggestions:

Bureau of Water Efficiency: Just last year, NITI Aayog announced that 21 cities would go dry by the year 2021. If this does happen, there will be large-scale migration from such cities to a few water surplus regions in the country.

The current image of millions of migrants heading for their villages is a real-life case study to learn about what is in store for us if we do not change our water use practices on a war footing. Water is a limiting factor for the hotel business and with a looming climate crisis, we can expect monsoons to be erratic.

The establishment of a Bureau of Water Efficiency (BWE) under the Jal Shakti Ministry would help provide strategic direction, program planning and execution of water conservation initiatives in close coordination with central and state agencies. This will help India in drought-proofing and build climate resilience.

No landfill policy: We should look at a pre-determined time frame of say five years from now to implement this policy. As per CPCB, landfills in India occupy 1546sq.kms of valuable land in the periphery of our cities and towns. This can, with a ‘business as unusual’ approach, come down to virtually zero.

Such released spaces should not be squandered away by erecting urban concrete jungles; instead, it can be replaced by urban forests that will increase the green cover to 25% or 30% of the land area, as necessary for every city.

There would be other advantages as well. The construction industry will have an opportunity to convert their construction debris in-situ for making useful construction material—an example of the PM's vision of ‘Local and Vocal’— and set a new benchmark for the rest of the world.

Food waste policy: The global food industry contributes approximately 30% of global GHG emissions. The Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has a draconian policy on food safety, which discourages hotels from giving away their leftover food to needy NGOs. If there is a case of food poisoning, the hotel or restaurant staff can go behind bars in a non-bailable offence.

The FSSAI may be persuaded to emulate the US Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The essence of this act is to protect hotels and restaurants from criminal liability should the food donated in good faith cause any harm to the recipient. Besides, food waste reduction will lead to lessor emissions and help reduce GHG emissions in line with UN SDG-sustainable development goals of the Paris accord of 2015. India is a signatory to the above accord.

Carrying capacity: All tourist destinations must be checked for carrying capacity, along with new places that opened. The destinations should be closed after the limit is reached.

Regenerative Agriculture: As migrant labourers have returned to their villages, the Agri industry, in partnership with the government, can help the farmers improve their farm productivity by introducing best farming practices bordering as close to organic farming as feasible.

The farmers can be assisted to help improve water productivity in farming by a comprehensive demand-side approach such as converting 1.3 billion tons of cow manure to operate decentralised biogas plants supplying online gas to villagers as opposed to imported gas under the GOI’s Gobar Dhan initiative.

The positive externality of this initiative will be a game changer at large scale, as the biogas slurry can be used for enriching the degraded soil. Biogas can be converted to Bio-CNG for rural transport fuel, and conversion of carbon-di-oxide to dry ice production will change the cold chain infrastructure of rural India, thus helping to double farmer’s income.

In conclusion, the opportunities available in a post-COVID era are vast and transformative in scope. The hospitality sector must display a higher purpose for survival/revival and look at its business practices with a new Resource Regenerative lens.

Can the Industry embrace the principles of a circular and green economy? Can it help enhance water management strategies by putting water harvesting systems in place and rise to these and other challenges?

Here I would like to quote Albert Einstein, who said, "Creativity is intelligence having fun".

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