The Indian train network is a thing of wonderous beauty. Its 120,000 kilometres of track carry 13,000 passenger trains daily, transporting 23 million people between 7,300 stations every day. Each of these trains is generally 24 coaches long, and stretches half a kilometre in length.
As the Tuticorin Express rolls into view, only an hour or so late, we’d done pretty well and find ourselves just 30m from our designated coach.
Our destination was Kovilpatti (a city renowned all over India for the production of matches), to meet the Green Reach Trust, an all-volunteer NGO whose aim is to make an impact on waste management through education and training. GRT have been in contact with WasteAid since the early days, and it was with great anticipation that we were trundling through the dry bush of Tamil Nadu to meet with them for a weekend exchange of ideas and techniques.
The initial hour’s delay stretched to two hours, and fortified by numerous cups of chai and coffee en route, we eventually rolled into Kovilpatti where we were greeted with smiles and handshakes from the GRT representatives Kaliraj, Aruna, Kamalabhai and Ganesh. We were immediately on our way again, heading by jeep to the senior school at Nagalapuram where I was to deliver a quick introductory presentation about WasteAid to a group of students and teachers.
Nagalapuram – school and palm products
However with Aruna translating it all went fine, and as soon as the props came out (crocheted bags from waste plastic made by WIG in the Gambia, and here’s-one-I-made earlier: an eco-brick containing 100% Indian waste plastic) the session quickly became very animated, with everyone becoming involved in discussing how they too could use these techniques to reduce the ever-growing tide of plastic. (In the 12 months since my previous visit to India, the amount of discarded plastic had visibly grown.)
A single basket fetches 2 rupees (that’s just 2p) in the market, so the speed is clearly necessary to make it anything like a worthwhile occupation.
After a delicious lunch of daal and rice eaten off palm leaves (no plastic plates here, hurray!) in a local restaurant, we drove on to Kilakaranthai, where we were met again by some of the students we’d been with earlier. This was where we were to see wood vinegar being made – something we were very interested in, particularly as it is a by-product of charcoal production, already a mainstay of WA interests and techniques.
Wood vinegar is a well-known product in Asia and has many applications. It can be used neat as a wood preservative, or mixed with 5 parts of charcoal dust to 2 parts of wood vinegar and stored for a month before being used fertiliser. Dilutions between 500:1 and 1000:1 can be sprayed directly on to vegetables or fruit trees to improve crop quality.
It is a surprisingly fast and productive process: with just a single pipe the yield is around 250ml in 10 minutes, and this can continue for anything up to 6 days.
All in all wood vinegar seems like a brilliant product with multiple applications, and is very easy to produce wherever charcoal or char is being made. We’re currently looking at how this might be best incorporated into the charcoal briquette production that is already such a successful and widespread technique.
Worms, cows, goats and polio drops
We were first shown around their vermiculture production unit, an impressive installation comprised of 9 concrete compartments. Each individual compartment has at the base a layer of gravel, then a layer of sand. On top of that is about 30kg of cow dung, 1000kg of general waste and 1kg of earthworms.
The vermiculture unit is part of a complex which also houses a small farm. There’s a small herd of cows (5 when were visiting, plus a calf born just the day before) and goats, which are producing the dung to supply the 9 vermiculture containers. Around the edges are trees, the pods of which are high in protein, and after being left to dry on the trees are used to feed the goats. In addition the goats eat food waste mixed with water.
During our quick tour of the farm it was great to see how everything grown was being used to its maximum potential to feed the animals.
While we were there, a youngster was given polio drops. In recent years, India has accomplished one of the biggest public health achievements in recent times and is now polio-free. This has been accomplished by a campaign called Pulse Polio, where all children under 5 are inoculated against the disease, and it so happened that the day of our visit was one of the two dates for the campaign in 2018.
Bottle mushrooms, waste decomposer and more good works
From Alampatti it was just a short drive to the Green Reach Trust Office. We arrived to a very warm welcome from dozens of volunteers, including many of the students we’d met the day before together with their parents, and were shown around the office and a exhibition of their work.
Besides the activities we had already seen demonstrated, we learnt about their extensive works in other areas such as tree planting, seed balls, apiculture, waste decomposer and much more, and were given a demonstration of their technique for producing mushrooms in plastic bottles.
This is followed by more similar layers until the bottle is full, after which the bottom is taped back on and the bottle put into a dark room.
When the first sprouts appear through the holes, the bottle can be moved to somewhere with more light and air. It takes 20 days for the mushrooms to grow through the holes ready for harvest. There’s anything up to 4 harvests possible from a single bottle, and afterwards the bed material can be used for compost.
A solution of just 30ml of this culture (cost 20 rupees) with 2kg of jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar made from sugar cane or palm) in 200 litres of water is made, which after 5 days turns into a creamy product which can then be used as a compost accelerator, producing ready-to-use compost after just 30 days.
Besides the benefits for rapid composting and subsequent applications, the real beauty of waste decomposer is that the original solution can be easily used to produce a new batch of waste decomposer, and this process repeated indefintely.
GRT projects for 2018
After a communal lunch (once again a totally delicious meal eaten off palm leaves) we were given a presentation of their work during 2017 and their plans for 2018. Kovilpatti and its environs is a largely agricultural area so it is natural that GRT are focussing on agricultural waste, and techniques for making the best use of this.
A major cause of concern is that farmers dump agricultural waste at the roadsides and then burn it. Using tractors, GRT collect as much as they can and then compost it. Through their education programmes they are helping the farmers to compost it themselves.
In 2017 they worked with 34 students and planted over 5000 trees in the schools and communities. In addition they created and distributed around 3000 seed balls.
This year they are working with 100 students aged 15-18 from two local schools, with the specific aims of creating awareness, turning waste into wealth, reducing pollution and building healthy soil. Besides aiming to provide every household with a dustbin for collection of home waste, they are training both students and women’s groups to be able to create household vermiculture units, waste decomposers and bottle mushrooms, which will provide an increase in income and other benefits for students and parents alike. In addition they are pressing on with their tree planting and seed ball projects.
For just a small, self-funded group, it’s incredible the range and scope of GRT’s activities, the length and breadth of their knowledge, and the huge amount of energy and dedication that they have.
It had been a tremendous experience. I’d learnt and experienced much, and the fantastic hospitality shown to us by everyone at GRT was second to none. Hopefully they too have also gained from the knowledge exchange with WasteAid.
Many thanks go to all the GRT staff, students and their parents for their superb hospitality and smiling faces. In particular I’d like to thank Aruna for her patient explanations and translations whenever needed, Eddie for his diligent assistance with note-taking and photography, and Kaliraj: you are a star! Your drive, enthusiasm and knowledge are tremendous – keep up your superb work. , and thank you so much for two days that I will never forget.
It’s before dawn, and Eddie and I are waiting on platform 2 of Kovilpatti station. Our train is running late, only by half an hour or so, and I’m watching some videos on the information screen: public education shorts about keeping the station clean and waste-free. One features a blind man, and the other, a crow. They’re available on YouTube and make a fitting epilogue to this tale.