On a warm day, Arpit Dhupar, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, was sipping sugar cane juice bought from a roadside vendor when he noticed the diesel engine used to power the sugar cane crushers. The vendor had attached a pipe to the engine exhaust, and as he worked the crusher, the wall behind him slowly started to turn black with soot. At that moment it occurred to Dhupar: Why not capture the soot and turn it into paint? It was the beginning of Chakr Innovation, a clean-tech start-up in Gurugram that converts soot from diesel engine into printable ink.
Chakr is not an aberration. A small but growing number of start-ups in India today is working on businesses that focus on green solutions and eco-sustainability. Even as they launch business models, some entrepreneurs are making sure that they do not miss the larger, global picture — of sustainability and conservation, and are investing in initiatives that will help tackle problems ranging from plastic overuse to water wastage.
Chakr, for instance, runs on the idea of turning pollutants to business gold. Shreya Kapoor, marketing manager, says that 90 per cent of black carbon emissions from the transport sector globally are from diesel vehicles. “Ninety per cent of air pollution-related deaths happen in low and middle-income African and Asian countries including India,” Kapoor adds.
To do their bit to deal with the menace, in 2016 Chakr came up with ways of producing ink pigment from soot. The start-up installed 65 ‘Chakr Shields’ — an emission control device that captures pollutants, especially particulate matter (PM), produced by diesel generators — across the country.
The mechanism, says Kapoor, reduces the PM levels in the air, resulting in better visibility and reduced smog. The technology is scalable and can be replicated for other sources of pollution such as power plants and automobiles, she adds. Each device can purify around 255 billion litres of air. ‘Poink’ or the residual pigment from the soot acts as a raw material for the paint and printing industry and is classified as an eco-friendly product. “So far we have been able to capture 500 kg of PM through the shields, purifying 1,800 billion litresof air. This is equivalent to the air breathed by almost six lakh individuals in a year,” claims Dhupar, co-founder and chief technical officer at Chakr. Big companies such as Tata Realty and Infrastructure Limited and Hindustan Petroleum Corportaion Ltd are on their client list. The shields have been set up at residences, too.
If Chakr is cleaning up air, Delhi-based Clensta International is working to conserve water. Puneet Gupta established this waterless technology company in 2016 after working closely with defence personnel. He observed that for the army personnel posted at extremely cold terrains such as Siachen and Kargil, taking a bath was often a tough task. “Along with IIT-Delhi, Clensta International created a waterless body bath and shampoo that maintain the same cleansing effect as soap and shampoo but without leaving behind residues. One can simply wipe it off with a tissue,” Gupta says. The products, he claims, have low aquatic and soil toxicity, strong biodegradability and are now being used by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, among others. “This shampoo actually reduces the microbiological load,” Dr Rajat Chaudhary, intensive treatment unit in-charge atSSKM Hospital, Kolkata, says. A 100ml bottle of the body bath is priced at ₹549 and the shampoo comes for ₹498.
Hasit Ganatra, a 33-year-old engineer in Ahmedabad, is going about building quality roofs for low-income families. In 2014, he founded ReMaterials, a company that builds alternative roofing in slums and villages. Ganatra’s team makes roofing material from industrial waste products such as cardboard, plastic and metal. “We source them from industries, ragpickers’ groups and waste aggregators. These materials, if not used properly, will clog water channels, harm animals and the ecosystem,” he points out.
Ganatra had earlier worked for a start-up that focussed on solar lighting. “It was my first deep encounter with life in rural areas. Now we sell high-quality roofing in slums and villages that makes summers cooler for families, keeps them safe during the monsoon and also provides usable space. The impact on their lives is tremendous. Around 30 per cent of these families either start or expand on an economic activity because they now have a reliable roof over their heads,” Ganatra says. The company has so far built roofs for over 400 houses in slums and villages. “The cost of a roof built by ReMaterials is half of what is required to build a concrete roof,” he adds.
Sunitaben, a factory worker who lives with her family of seven in Ramol, Gujarat, installed one such roof recently. “We have so far provided about 75,000 sq ft of installations, and in doing so, have saved 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and 300,000 litres of water which would have been required to cover the same area through conventional roofing methods. As for Sunitaben, her family has had a peaceful, leak-free monsoon after 30 years,” Ganatra says.
Over to robots
If ReMaterials secures a roof over one’s head, then the robots of Pune-based Fluid Robotics map out the health of old and deteriorating underground pipeline networks that carry water, sewage and storm water. The maps aid municipal corporations in repairing critical infrastructure before catastrophic damages. Asim Bhalerao realised that cities such as Mumbai did not have reliable maps of the underground pipe network, forcing those like the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) engineers to use labourers to manually identify damaged pipes. The BMC would dig up roads and check their condition by hitting each pipe with a metal rod and monitoring the vibrations.
Bhalerao, who has helped build autonomous submarines for his robotics team in the University of Southern California and designed surgical robots in the Silicon Valley for eight years, returned to India in 2016 to start Fluid Robotics. The start-up now develops advanced water infrastructure and designs farm management practices to minimise water loss and maximise water reuse.
In Mumbai, the company’s robots have monitored wastewater infrastructure contributing to over 600 MLD (million litres a day) of raw sewage that enters Powai Lake and Mithi River, eliminating to a large extent the risk to human life. This data-driven approach has allowed interception and diversion of wastewater to treatment plants for reuse, significantly reducing water pollution.
The company’s drone-based crop monitoring solution has been used to map over 100,000 acres by the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation to identify crop patterns, water sources and estimating water requirements for each farmer and village.
Ahmedabad-based start-up EcoRight works to address the epidemic of plastic pollution. “EcoRight was born not as an option but a necessity. We are bridging the sustainable consumption gap between consumers and manufacturers by creating eco-friendly products made from natural fibres such as jute and cotton,” founder Udit Sood, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, says.
EcoRight has about 30 products in its kitty including shopping, grocery, beach and lunch bags and laptop bags. The start-up is working on ways to increase the use of recycled cotton and polyester. “Recycled cotton is made from waste cotton. Since the cotton has already been in use earlier, no water or other resources are used in its production. Recycled polyester is made from recycled plastic bottles and bags. So we are taking plastic out of the environment and giving it a second life through our bags,” Sood explains. EcoRight products are packaged with biodegradable materials derived from corn, wheat and potato starch.
Sustainability as an idea is cropping up in products aimed at children, too. Flinto, a Chennai based start-up, works on creating products for holistic learning and development of children. It was set up in 2013 by entrepreneurs Arunprasad Durairaj, Vijay Babu Gandhi and Shreenidhi Srirangam on the premise that the most complex concepts can be simplified for children.“We aspire to create a lasting impact during the formative years of children by building transformative play experiences where children play and change the world for the better. Our ‘21-Day Water Saver’ game makes water conservation simple for children to understand. We aspire to raise a water-conscious generation through this interesting game, and thereby, leave behind a greener earth,” Flinto co-founder Gandhi says.
Among the 10 lakh children who have played the game and been inspired to use water judiciously is five-year-old Sanjana. “My daughter did not just love the water-saver game, she learned from it, too. She now closes the tap tightly everytime she uses it to prevent wastage,” Roopa Mahesh, Sanjana’s mother and a senior market researcher, says.
Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an Ahmedabad-based freelance journalist