Meet the Punekar who is bringing dignity to the lives of waste pickers
Waste pickers at a number of segregation centres of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporations and those managed by the waste-pickers’ cooperative, Swach, are often forced to segregate garbage by handUpdated: Mar 31, 2019 15:49 IST
Hindustan Times, Pune
At the Baner office of Vivam Agrotech sits chairperson, Nirmala Kandalgaonkar, who’s company has been working towards making villages clean and taking steps towards optimum use of waste by the services provided by her solid waste management firm.
Kandalgaonkar, 64, completed her bachelors in Science and holds a post-graduate diploma in Environment Science. She has been leading her company as its chairperson since 2001 in the field of solid waste management.
Waste pickers at a number of segregation centres of Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal corporations and those managed by the waste-pickers’ cooperative, Swach, are often forced to segregate garbage by hand.
A conveyer-belt driven waste segregator installed by a city-based waste processing firm at Wagholi could go a long way in bringing dignity to the lives of these waste pickers. The scenario could significantly change for better if the civic authorities install conveyer belt-driven waste segregators at the centres as has been done by Vivam Agrotech.
The Rs 5-crore turnover firm provides consultancy and technical solutions in vermicomposting, biogas, mechanical and bacterial composting and power generation from biodegradable waste, all conceived by Kandalgaonkar.
A homemaker for a major part of her married life, Kandalgaonkar started thinking about ways to give back to society only after her children were grown. “When I was studying or growing up I had no idea or intention that I would own a large company, someday. It was just a mere thought of doing something for the people around me that give birth to Vivam Agrotech,” said Kandalgaonkar.
She wanted to start with something that would not require a lot of investment, but would provide reasonable returns too. “Waste in any form is found in abundance around us. My idea of starting the business was based on three aspects, accessibility, availability and useful by-product. All of these fit exactly when it came to vermicomposting,” said Kandalgaonkar.
With the technical help of her husband Girish, a mechanical engineer, Kandalgaonkar started working on composting units. It began on an experimental basis in Aurangabad with a seed investment of Rs 50,000. Today, the company has a turnover of Rs 5 crore, besides units of vermicompost and biogas across the country.
“Initially, I worked with women from villages with an aim of empowering them. It was a simple step-by-step process; there was nothing tedious or technical. They started selling compost to farmers in the area while some even used it in their kitchen gardens. Thus it was a win-win situation for all. I started buying chemical and residue-free yield from them and sold it to health providers. The sale brought them a better income,” she said.
Post the success of these units, the company received a subsidy in 2004-2006, where each farmer was given Rs 5,000 on the use of vermicompost unit.
She was approached by the municipal corporation. And that’s when they launched smaller house units for solid waste management. “It was a cycle that only made profit. The raw material was easily available at no extra cost and the sale of the compost brought in money. We then branched to hotels, hostels and temples too. We explained to them how the waste generated at each of their premises can be used to their benefit.”
Besides ensuring the best utilisation of waste generated in hotels and hostels, Kandalgaonkar expanded her work by developing biogas plants for housing societies and flats too. She claims to be the first woman to generate power from waste in the country. “I started my waste-to-power project in 2008 at Chiplun. The success of this project gave me the confidence and there has been no stopping since then,” she said.
The biggest challenge faced is the lack of awareness among people. “People need to understand the value of recycling and reusing waste. It takes very little effort to help convert waste into something useful. I want people to take it up themselves to bring about the change. If a housewife like me could bring about these experiments then anybody can do it,” she said.
While Kandalgaonkar has the support of her husband, their three children are also extending assistance. Their sons Nilesh and Kaivalya are her support system, while daughter Neha is the firm hand at work. Neha, a masters in commerce and business administration joined her mother’s firm after quitting her job at an international bank.
Today, Neha single-handedly manages the construction sites, liaising with officials and deals across the country. “I did find it difficult initially because the sector was unknown to me. However, I have seen my mother work and took tips from her. Today, she concentrates on her social work and I handle the office work,” she said.
Neha is also responsible for the grampanchayat waste handling mechanical compost plant which segregates mixed, fresh city waste. One of these units is operational at Ubalenagar, Wagholi, for the past four months. “It segregates waste on a conveyor belt to the precision of separating, plastic, debris, glass and other materials. There is minimum manual intervention required,” said Neha.
Kandalgaonkar is full praise for her daughter’s efforts and said, “In a very short span, she has learned everything and manages efficiently. Her advantages include fluency in English, digital and technology awareness and good communication skills.”
Do they take work home? Neha says, “Dinner conversations are mostly work related because that is when we get the time to sit and discuss.”
Are there arguments considering the work patterns are different? Nirmala said, “Actually our only disagreement comes when it is about social versus commercial aspect of business. She tells me how it is important to be business-oriented at certain situations.”
First Published: Mar 31, 2019 15:19 IST