An interview with Milan Kumar Kukreti, an expert in growing fruits and vegetables in pots on terraces and other places
Q. Can you please tell us something about the starting days of your life?
Milan Kukreti: We are originally from Dehradun. My grandfather was a zamindar in Bithauli and all the jungles there were ours. However, in 1950 there was a Zamindari Abolition Act levied and hence all the jungles became nationalized. Once I had seen my grandfather's diary of 1932, in that there was some mention about getting Rs 10,000 every 10 years instead of the jungles of wood. Those days that used to be a very big amount. However, the thought process of my grandfather and my father too was very middle class. My father was always dedicated to education. My father was very inspired by Gandhiji’s thoughts. In his entire life span, Gandhiji had come to Mussoorie in 1946 and that time the responsibility of his security was given to my father. After completing his education, he became a teacher in Gandhi secondary school and so I came to study at Oak public school of the railway in Mussoorie. I studied here till Matric. During this time in 1970, I cleared IIT entrance exams and so with a scholarship, I got admission to IIT, Kanpur, in my favorite branch in chemical engineering.
Q. After entering into IIT, how the doors to a good future must have opened for you?
Milan Kukreti: How much ever we plan our future the way we want it to be, ultimately it is all God’s will only. The truth is that you can call it the atmosphere or the company there in the Kanpur campus, I too got infl uencedbinto becoming a leftist and started participating in those student activities. I was putting complete focus on my studies and one day while returning from my morning walk back to my hostel I stopped at a junction. From there the right road went towards the hostel, while the left road towards an open land. Naturally I turned to the left and I witnessed a rally going on. There was a crowd of people protesting against genocide in Vietnam by America. If I had turned right and gone straight to my hostel that day, then I would have quietly continued to study but unfortunately I turned left and took part in the rally. Since I could speak well and became popular, hence I was handed over the mike many times. I became very involved in activism and it had an effect on my studies. My principal Sheshadriji who was extremely fond of me fi nally called my father and asked him to take me away before matters get worse in the campus. That day because of one wrong turn by me, everything was ruined. During that time in college with me on the same bench there was Mahesh Gupta from Kent water purifi er who topped IAS exams in 1976 and Sudhir Vyas who was India’s Ambassador in Pakistan and Yadupati Singhania from the Singhania family.
"We can start a healthy life by growing vegetables and fruits in our homes on terraces or windows. You do not require a farm for terrace gardening. If you have the passion and curiosity for it automatically space will be available too. Each one must first plant mint in their homes and see the growth and then on your own you will find a place for gardening. Vegetables and fruit plants not only help in balancing the environment around us but also help to transmit positive energy inside the house which influences the life of everyone."
Q. How did you recover from this shock at such a young age?
Milan Kukreti: The conditions that I was going through, anyone else in my place would have had no other option but to commit suicide. But I am extremely indebted to my father who supported me during that tough phase and always stood beside me like a mountain. He kept telling me to move on and give a new start and not to loose hope. Then I did my inter from private and even in one of the toughest exams of UP board I scored 93 percent marks in Mathematics. There after I performed well and completed my graduation by standing fourth in the University. Once I completed my econometrics and came out then I got a lot of teaching offers as I was already interested in that fi eld seeing my father in the same. I got a permanent teaching job in Welham boys school and simultaneously kept appearing for more competitive exams. I did the prelim of IAS too. In 1981, I got selected as Assistant Administrative Officer in LIC and I chose this career to settle in life.
Q. Those days was it a privilege to do a job in LIC?
Milan Kukreti: You are absolutely right. This job not only gave me success in life but also made me a good human too. After my initial posting, later I became the Assistant Divisional Manager, then Deputy Zonal Manager and then retired as a Zonal Manager from there. During this time I could pay attention to my initial interest in gardening and farming. All the credit for this goes to my grandmother, as she was the one who planted the seed of interest in me which fi nally bloomed during the last stage of my career in LIC.
Q. How did you mange this combination of LIC and gardening?
Milan Kukreti: The management development centre (MDC) of LIC, Borivali was spread across seven acres. However the maximum area of this land was rocky and hence the good use of this land was a matter of concern for the management. Then one day our Director asked us if we can use this land in any way. So I took up this challenge. After doing an effi cient inspection of the land, instead on focusing on the rocky area, I made a 100% of the green patch and made a plan to use it. I planted creepers. I potted bitter gourd, cucumber, bottle gourd, pumpkins etc whose subheads started spreading on the remaining part of the rocky land. I planted tomatoes and brinjals whose roots kept the land moving. Made separate and small beds of different vegetables everywhere. Important people from other companies started coming to see how a barren land was transformed in such a way and took feedback from us to replicate the same.
Q. After bringing greenery into LIC, what did you do post your retirement?
Milan Kukreti: By this time it was time for me to retire and hence I could not give guidance to other centres and states but I made it up by gardening on my own terrace. After retirement from LIC, I found such a fl at in Borivali and took it up on rent where I could do the right kind of terrace gardening. My landlady too helped me out a lot. After a few restrictions in the start, even the society understood the importance of this and started supporting me. The kind of experiments that I did here, were a source of inspiration for others. Here I planted 400 small and big plants.
Q. Then later how did your dream of terrace gardening get accomplished?
Milan Kukreti: First of all I started planting evergreen vegetables like tomatoes and brinjals and leafy greens like mint, spinach, and Amaranth. I credit myself in getting very good production of these vegetables in a small area only. It's true that creativity only comes from passion. Once I fully succeeded in growing these vegetables, then I started focusing on other genres. These three genres were topsy – turvy pots. In this type, a big hole in made in the bottom of the pot and the plant is passed through it. This plant then grows averse to gravity towards the top. The advantage of doing this is that the pot gets 90 percent of compost and everything else, unlike in normal post where only 35 percent is received by the plant and rest flows away with water. This does not even need any space because it is tied up and hung from the top and not kept on the ground. Unlike other plants, these need only 30 percent water and so there is a saving of 70 percent water and in fact it grows by 200 percent. First, we experimented with tomatoes and after being successful we tried the same for capsicums and brinjals too.
Q. Which were the other two techniques that finally created a revolution?
Milan Kukreti: The other is Straw Bell Gardening. This means growing vegetables with only hay and straws instead of mud. I had read about the fact that the hay and grass from the rice and wheat farms can be used for other purposes. This is beneficial for the compost and helps in the good growth of the plants. I am using this technique and successfully growing vegetables that too with less requirement of water. The third technique is Square inch Gardening. This means creating production in minimalist spaces. For example, if you cut a 2-liter coke bottle into half and keep it evenly on the ground grow vegetables in it, they grow for a long time. I have grown 160 green garlic pods in a 448-inch box successfully. With this technique in all the bottles, almost a week full of vegetables will be available. I grow 11 vegetables in a vertical garden of one foot by 8 feet broad wall in a small place of 8 layers.
Q. Which compost is used to make the formula of terrace gardening successful?
Milan Kukreti: We have spoken a lot of growing but to sustain this kind of gardening the most important thing is the compost. The right, proper and capable compost is the life of the plant. After gaining experience in gardening, I started putting my entire focus into the composting. In this, there were both home and vermicompost. Home composting in fact is the biggest motivator of Prime Minister Modiji’s cleanliness drive (swachh bharat). In this, leftover waste in our homes from vegetables and fruits like their skin and grains and others are included. If plants receive potassium-rich fertilizers, nitrogen and phosphorous from vermin, then plants grow well and give good produce. Similarly by grinding peels of bananas, papaya, and pumpkins and then mixing it with dry leaves of jack fruit, if compost is prepared then it gives good results.
Q. Are you telling us that terrace gardening has increased the number of years of your lives?
Milan Kukreti: This is absolutely true. There is a saying that ‘pure gold does not fear the flame’. You can visit my house to see my father who is 93 years old and my mother is 91 years old and both are in the best of health. Prior to 2010, my parents used to stay in Dehradun and their health used to be a little up and down but since the time they have come here to live with me their health has improved a lot by consuming organic vegetables and fruits and not only that they are also much more active than earlier. Their immunity has increased a lot these days. In fact sometime back when my mother was 90 years old, she had got diagnosed with dengue and the doctors were worried but my mother used to say that after eating such healthy and organic vegetables nothing can happen to her and that’s exactly what happened. She recovered from her dengue. She is a live example today for all. Both I and my wife are extremely healthy even after our retirement. The taste of organic vegetables is like an addiction. Once you get used to this you will not like anything else. My objective of this is to make our country organic and pesticide-free which will not only protect our health but also from global warming. I have got the maximum help for this goal of mine from the atmosphere and environment of Dehradun.
There is a speedy and uncontrollable trend of adulteration in fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, oil today in the country and on the other side the administration who can curb it, are blind to it. This is making the situation very dangerous. The current generation is tolerating it but for the future generation, this scenario is going to be even more dangerous and painful. All political parties are complacent with this which is the biggest issue today. For them, this is not an issue at all. This practice of mixing that was in the city with grocers and businessmen, has not reached villages and farmers and they are openly selling poison. Unfortunately, the government is too busy spending money and focusing on making people do yoga and attacking those defecating in open. Only if there is life, will there be cleanliness and toilets? Who is ultimately going to decide on these social preferences? In such a situation Milan Kumar Kukreti has taken the initiative of being the leader of his campaign on growing fresh and organic vegetables in your own homes and close by areas. Presenting a special interview with Life 365.
Q. You are a superstar on Facebook and YouTube in demonstrating how to grow organic vegetables.
Milan Kukreti: I started posting my creations with the help of Nitya Nadar on Facebook groups ‘blooms’. Every day I gave new tips. I kept inspiring people on how even in the smallest of places they can grow vegetables. Apart from me there are experts on terrace gardening and composting from Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Pune also who post their suggestions, views and give guidance on the ‘blooms’ group on Facebook. This group that had started with just a few people has now become the largest group. There are many videos of mine related to terrace gardening on Facebook. However, this particular video has become so popular that to date there are more than 2.4 lakh views across 25 countries and I have approximately 12 thousand subscribers to my channel.
Q. What advice would you like to give to the readers of terrace gardening?
Milan Kukreti: If you want to lead a good life then it is extremely important to make sure that the nutrition you put inside your body is purely organic, seasonal and chemical-free. One must try to eat such vegetables as much as possible and even if this is possible for at least a few days a week is good enough. At least that much lesser chemicals and dirt will go into our stomachs. People who follow this and are interested and addicted to this are so content and happy that nothing else even interests them. Instead of counting its benefits, rather one must experience it themselves to actually know the benefit of it in our lives. Life moves on in a smooth and healthy manner.
Q. Can you please tell us about your family?
Milan Kukreti: The head of our big family is my father Keshavchandra Kukreti and he is 93 years old and extremely active even today. My mother is Sukrita Kukreti, she is 91 years old and just like my father, she too is extremely active and does all her work herself and also participates in the work at home. My wife Sangeeta is a retired principal from a school in Mumbai. We have only one son Kabir, he is 33 years old and he a senior software engineer in a company called Netcore in Mumbai. He got married only this year.