Pradeep Kumar is up with the lark this morning. He’s going to take me to the Salt Lake City suburb of Kolkata to show me his lab space at the ETK Incubator, before going to an EU meeting on bioenergy, then leaving town to visit a power plant. He’s a man on a mission alright.
Together with his wife, he has started a company called Symbio Greentech. He tells me he worked out in Malaysia for a while, where some of these clean up technologies were being piloted. For him, it ignited his desire to go to India and try to make a difference there. Today he is showing me the vetiver grass, which can be cultivated on a biodegradable matting made of coir or jute. He uses this as either floating islands to clean up waterways, or as a means of stabilising piles of fly-ash: the unsightly mountains created by coal burning. These piles can turn to slurry in heavy rainfall, and there have been a number of accidents involving storage of this waste, according to Greenpeace. Vetiver is a native plant of Kerala, where Pradeep grew up. He instructs me to observe the long roots which take the place of the matting then the substrate degrades.
His approach has been carefully thought through – start with some small pilot sites, demonstrate the technology, monitor progress and use these to do the talking. His background in business has shown him you can’t scale up until you are sure of your raw material supply. To address this, he is building his own small bioeconomy, with people cultivating the vetiver to make the plant plugs, and other suppliers making the woven matting.
You have to admire him – he’s negotiated some start up support for his fledgling lab, worked hard to build his networks in Bengal and in the meantime signing an MoU with a Swedish company Globewater AB to look at wastewater innovations. He’s got a huge appetite to see his technology make a difference in India. With the new president, and his “Clean India” mission Pradeep feels now the mood is right. Modi has an ambitious goal to fulfil Ghandi’s vision of a clean India. His target is to achieve this by October 2nd 2019, Ghandi’s 150th birthday.
And how about funding I ask? The government has put some funds behind this cleanup campaign. Also, by a new law introduced in April this year means it is compulsory for all Indian companies making above a certain threshold have to give 2% of their budget to CSR projects.
He shows me a picture of a canal filled with plastic bottles and blackened with years of waste thrown in by the nearby shops and stalls. He had stabilised and greened the banks, and cleaned the rubbish. It seemed dreadful that people could have used the waterway as a giant litter bin. Why did they do it, knowing full well the plastic stays there? “Listen”, Pradeep says, “they are used to seeing it like that, as far as it is concerned it has always been this way so what difference would one more bottle make?”
I ask if his work has the dual purpose not only of cleaning up, but enabling people to take pride in their environment. “Yes, but at first the people were sceptical. I tell them look, you have to be your own stakeholders, you have to take ownership of this for yourself, I merely provide the service.” He feels that citizens can lack a sense of responsibility- the same person who will not litter on the metro because of the security cameras will go ahead and drop his rubbish on the street. We talk about the power of the nudge effect, and how potentially cleaning up one district could be a positive influence for others.
As we head back through the traffic clogged streets of Kolkata, he says that it isn’t always straightforward, projects can get embroiled in politics. Communication sometimes isn’t done well – when the villagers see his team turning up at a fly-ash pile they can get angry and prevent the work, not knowing that he is trying to help them. Other times there are vested interests. He shakes his head at the futility, “then I have to just walk away from these sites, it is not the right place for me to be.”