Kannan Pasupathiraj is someone who leads a life by setting an example. Son of a forest officer, his tryst with nature began at a young age. He went on to take up Civil Engineering for his Bachelor’s degree after which he worked for an NGO in Uganda, Micro Care Africa. After his stint there, he naturally veered towards Environmental Engineering for his Master’s at the Technical University of Hamburg, Germany, where he studied the social angle of sanitation on a scholarship by the German Ministry for Education and Research.
Coincidentally, the year he graduated, 2004, was the year that the Indian Ocean tsunami struck India and other countries. He offered his services to Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger), a French NGO, to help in disaster management and reconstruction, with his skills in water management. While his work was voluntary, it did take up the rest of the decade to finally wrap up. “We were in Jaffna till September 2005, helping construct houses for displaced people. By 2006, I joined the Australian Red Cross to become the construction coordinator.” He helped construct around 500 houses for the affected people in Northern Sri Lanka. As the political situation in Sri Lanka worsened, he had to keep relocating — first to Kilinochi, the hotbed of LTTE, and then to Colombo till 2010. “I held different positions there, which trained me to respond quickly to any situation. The reconstruction was extensive — we finished close to 25,000 houses during my tenure. Then, my wife Veena and I decided to move back to India.”
Kannan’s commitment to the environment can be seen from the sterling examples he has made out of his house and entrepreneurial venture. Built with reused materials acquired from various dumping grounds, he used old doors that are 8.5’ high, forcing them to increase the height of the ceiling, which is great for ventilation. Even their furniture is reused or made from drift wood. Every time an establishment closes, be it a printing press, medical shop or grocery store, Kannan offers to buy the old furniture.
He now also has a composter to ensure that no organic waste leaves his compound. What’s more, Kannan installed a waste water treatment system at home, the water from which is used in his garden. The treatment system is laid below the house and you wouldn’t know it even if you tried to sniff your way around. “What was a first for us became a reference point for others. So I developed the technology and started EcoTec, a venture that helps make living environment-friendly and sustainable, with KLARO, Germany, a company that provides wastewater treatment systems around the world. We thus built affordable solutions for wastewater treatment, rainwater harvesting, composters and even lightweight concrete.” He thereby reduces his own carbon footprint and urges others to do so.
Kannan’s rationale is this, “Human interaction with nature has resulted in creating a threat to mankind, and nature in all its glory responds with catastrophes, having lost its equilibrium. I’m trying to get people to understand this basic premise and offer them solutions.”
Speaking of catastrophes, Kannan had been visiting Srinagar since July when the Pollution Control Board (PCB) had initiated a crackdown on all hotels for not practising waste management and recycling. So he began educating hoteliers, housing boards and the PCB on how they could utilise technology for waste water management and organic waste. “I have realised that you cannot just convince people. You need to educate them first.” And he was waiting to set up a plant in Srinagar when nature began to send out warning signals. The rain never stopped and the disaster management expert in him started seeing signs of an impending natural calamity.
“I realised by September 3 that the waters of the Jhelum were rising at an alarming level and when I approached authorities, they were of no help, asking me to check if the bund had broken.
One must understand that almost 60 per cent of the city is below the wall of the river and it was precariously close to overflowing. We decided to pack and drive to find a place in case we needed to evacuate.” He equipped himself with high energy foods like almonds, raisins and eight litres of water, before setting out. They eventually landed at the historic Gupkar Road, which is on an incline and houses the Chief Minister, Governor and several VIP residences, along with upscale hotels and a helipad which would become the stage for the rescue sorties. Thus began the 10-day ordeal. Fear and panic began to spread as Srinagar got flooded and the Jhelum mixed with Dal lake and sent people to the hills to wait for helicopters that would take them out to the airport and out of the city.
With a candid demeanour, he says, “What was surprising was the lack of initiative from the Government and Army at that time. It took two days for them to step up. People were grappling with a power blackout, the obvious flooding, loss of property and lives, lack of communication signals, lack of medicines and food, and most importantly, lack of access to the right information from reliable sources on the actual situation.” He, like many others, pitched in wherever possible, taking breaks only to catch a few hours of sleep in the parking lot of the Lalit Hotel. The queue to get on the helicopters was swelling with at least 3,500 people, but priority was given to VIPs.
He picked apples for people in the queue from the hotel’s orchard, charged their phones for them and delivered water. He also collected medicines from those ahead in the queue and brought blankets and offered to send women, children and older people in his place. On his return by September 13, he frantically reached out to his NGO contacts to send relief or personnel for assessment. He asks, “Have we learned nothing from our past? Wasn’t Uttarakhand enough of a lesson in disaster preparedness? In times like this, it is important to show some solidarity and reach out in all ways possible.” He warns people against underestimating the forces of nature.