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While most engineering students in the country nurture dreams of wellpaid corporate jobs and upwardly mobile lifestyles, two enterprising students from Coimbatore decided to walk down a different road.

Twenty-three-year-old Saran Raj, along with his classmate C. Prashanth, decided instead to do something about the mounting garbage problem in their city. They have devoted their lives to a social entrepreneurship initiative for segregating, recycling and disposal of waste.

 On a typical day, you can see Prashanth and Saran Raj, with their team of ward coordinators, starting off at six in the morning at the gated communities. They rifle through tonnes of garbage, sometimes soggy and messy, picking out bottles, toothpaste tubes, invitation cards and rubber-banded plastic bags with the chutney and sambar still in them. They have recovered nearly 10 tonnes of garbage from a single gated community of 650 houses in one month. “That is the amount that has NOT ended up in the landfill,” points out Saran Raj.

Their aim is to turn Coimbatore into a zero-waste city. Not only do they personally handle the segregation and disposal, they also educate households on how to segregate their garbage. They encourage each house to spend just two minutes a day being mindful of how their waste is being discarded. Most of them now comply with the basic segregation of waste into organic and inorganic. The organic wastes go straight to farmlands while plastic and paper are sold to the recycling industry. “‘No landfills, no bin-fill’ is our goal,” says Prashanth. And this is not impossible to achieve, he says. The two young engineers see great potential in the business of garbage. Not only does it clean up the city, but it is an opportunity for social entrepreneurship.

Right from their school days, Prashanth and Saran Raj had shown an inclination towards socially relevant activities, be it planting saplings or donating blood. As they grew older they decided to eschew the beaten path and do something for the environment instead.

One of their first attempts to clean up happened at the Chinnayampalaym Lake, which was filled with sewage. With the help of the local Panchayat head, they removed the debris around the lake and planted 100 native trees there; that still stand there. This was an important event in their lives as it opened their eyes to the waste disposal process and how they could contribute.

They were fortunate, they say, that along the way they met mentors who inspired them and made them more determined than ever to take up social service. Some of their key influencers they credit with their success are Umesh Marudhachalam, environmentalist, who was a part of Kuruchi Lake Restoration Campaign; P.Vincent, ecologist, who advised them to use Vetiver to clean up water bodies; Raveendran, RAAC ,who introduced them to waste management activities; Suresh Bhandari, Clean Cities Foundation, who helped them to learn waste management activities in depth and Vijaya Karthikeyan, IAS, Commissioner of Coimbatore Municipal Corporation, who supported them in pursuing ward based activities.

They started off working on several environment related activities. The initial thrust was on organic waste handling to produce manure for organic farming. Then as they became aware of how urban waste management pollutes environment, they began to focus on solid waste management. Initially, Coimbatore Corporation supported them by providing land for composting organic waste which was collected from ward 23 of West Zone. This organic waste was sold to farmers.

A key factor in their success was the excellent support they got from all quarters. They give special credit to the Corporation Commissioner who provided his utmost support by solving their needs like infrastructure, logistics and waste handling. As they progressed they received overwhelming support from people of various organizations, NGOs, gated communities and individuals. Their parents were initially apprehensive, but seeing the support they were receiving from various quarters, they became very supportive, even helping them out financially for small expenses. “We never felt we have obstacles,” says Prashanth.

As they have moved forward, their initial goals have not changed significantly, although they have developed a special focus on solid waste management, an important reason being sustainability of their efforts to meet revenue generation. They feel solid waste management could be a viable social enterprise. They plan to make a replicable social entrepreneurship model in solid waste management and are planning to develop small recycling initiatives.

Their efforts are surely an inspiration for youth across the country to take up social entrepreneurship at a larger scale.

Ravi Chandran

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