Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 1996   |   India

Shantharam Umanath Shenai

Green Cross Society
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
Shantaram Umanath Shenai ("Shantu"), who is popularly known in and around India's commercial capital of Mumbai (Bombay) as the "Garbage Guru," is successfully demonstrating…
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This description of Shantharam Umanath Shenai's work was prepared when Shantharam Umanath Shenai was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.


Shantaram Umanath Shenai ("Shantu"), who is popularly known in and around India's commercial capital of Mumbai (Bombay) as the "Garbage Guru," is successfully demonstrating "earthworm technology" for recycling and sustainable ecological re-development.

The New Idea

Shantaram Umanath Shenai's idea has matured from a mere waste disposal program based on the recycling of organic waste into vermi-compost, to a pioneering rejuvenation program, which literally re-creates soil. Quite simply, Shantaram is demonstrating how deep burrowing earthworms are capable of replacing soil in one year that would take 200 years to re-generate naturally. His idea is to use these earthworms to convert all forms of wasted organic matter into usable bio-fertilizer or multi-purpose sanitation products. Not only relieving cities of the threat of epidemics and the high costs of waste management, Shantaram's program will also help re-vitalize fallow and denuded land, supply organic fertilizer to rural areas and insulate village economies from market instabilities. His aim now is to promote this creative alternative to the present systems of urban waste disposal throughout India.

The Problem

Garbage created within cities are the cause of a whole series of problems: dirt, disease, stink, epidemics, air, water and land pollution; and breeding grounds for scavenger creatures like mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches, street dogs, etc. That India is on the brink of an environmental emergency is reflected by the recent outbreak of the plague in Delhi, which is known to have been due directly to organic pollution. A greater and long-term potential impact is the loss of biodiversity in the form of medicinal plants and bird and animal species.In Mumbai alone the 6,000 tons of garbage that is produced daily, whose organic content is as high as 60 per cent, is customarily dumped in distant sites and land fills which are fast filling up. As much as 1,000 tons of this daily waste remains uncollected and finds its way into storm drains meant for rain water or lies around in slums. Furthermore, methane gas created at the dumps causes fires that burn, creating pollutants like dioxins, furans and heavy metals in very fine forms. 25 percent of children in Mumbai have respiratory ailments, most of whom live near dumpsites.

The Strategy

Shantaram realized from the start that first he would have to let people know what he was doing and second, he would have to institutionalize his project. He managed to get extensive media coverage to show that his idea applied on any scale, from an individual or industry to a community or municipality. This in turn prompted several requests for his project to be brought into various areas. He soon had 40 different micro-projects functioning under his direction.In order to start the institutionalization process, Shantu initiated partnerships with the Indian Army and Navy and the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Bombay Municipal Corporation's Versova Pumping Station now collects and vermi-processes two to three tons of market waste into bio-fertilizer every day. A nursery where plants are grown and a former waste plot where bananas and papayas now grow are biological indicators of the success of the project. At present, the principal participants number about 30,000 residents within one municipality, which contains 42 housing colonies, two slums, one school, a hospital, shops and markets.Shantaram has successfully demonstrated a viable chain that leads to sustainable resource management for cities. He has adopted a systemic approach to switch from end-of-the-pipeline solutions to treatment at the source, an approach that often saves money and yields more feasible solutions to difficult problems. His idea is simple and inexpensive, can be carried out by lay persons and taught and practiced in a relatively short period of time. Moreover, it is truly effective. He believes that earthworm technology could be applied to create organic farms, recycle water, save forests and create safer and eco-friendlier cities.Through his city-wide demonstration projects in Mumbai, Shantaram has proved that it is possible for cities to be eco-friendly and environmentally conscientious by converting urban waste products into bio-fertilizer which is richer in nutrients than standard compost. Shantaram is now set to build an organization and network that will further spreads his idea and applications in other cities and towns and develop newer applications of the technology. He is also working on preparing kits and packages which can be easily tried, tested and used by lay people.

The Person

Having spent his childhood in a rural area of the northeastern state of Assam, Shantaram moved with his family to Bombay when he was ten years old and was deeply disturbed by the urban squalor and impersonality of the city. Even as a child he was unable to accept the detachment city dwellers had from the earth and the entire natural environment, and that has stayed with him into adulthood.Driven by his own personal determination to address this situation, Shantaram abandoned his flourishing career as a self-made electronics engineer. Utilizing the valuable business sense and contracting experience that his electronics career gave him, he has now successfully demonstrated his idea, especially with the Bombay Municipal Corporation. Shantaram feels he is moving from the experimental stage in his career life cycle. He hopes to carry his idea to the next level and have optimal impact with this project in which he so strongly believes.

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