A year into his career as a lecturer in Chennai's New
College, a dejected student introduced Sultan Ismail to his life's
passion. The year was 1979 and the student had come to him after he was
refused a place in a post graduate course. What do I do now?, he had asked.
Ismail gazed around the laboratory looking for something to offer. He
saw some writhing worms kept there for dissection exercises. He set six
beakers with a variety of soil samples, let some worms into them and
told the student: "Oh, why don't you study their behaviour!"
Little did he know that he would himself be doing that forever after that day.
Among the discoveries of his research over the years
... earthworms alone don't do any magic but the
environment in which they thrive, does
... compost production can be scaled up to solve very
... liquid fertilisers, waste water treatment, sewage
disposal can all benefit from the use of earthworms
... importing fancy, exotic breeds from all over the
world doesn't work
Through publications, seminars, his students, field
demonstrations, social service organisations and his own personal
integrity Dr.Ismail today patiently attempts to educate people on the
uses of earthworms.
"There is usually euphoria and enthusiasm first ,
frequently followed by apathy and disinterest thereafter", he says.
"But for those who understand the very simple rules of vermiculture,
there is sustained success and profit."
The process of getting earthworms to work for you is a
two step process. In the first, you create a home for earthworms and other soil animals to
colonise. This can be a pot, a
bucket or a mammoth trough. In it are provided a source of nitrogen,
like cow dung and a source of carbon, like rice straw. If this is then, kept
well drained, damp and cool a few earthworms let in will rapidly
multiply. Once the colony is ready you can feed it all manner of organic
matter and have it converted to usable compost in a few weeks. As long
as there is constant input of 'food' for the worms, production of
compost is forever
He believes vermicuture can be used in many situations,
from micro to large scale. He has devised and demonstrated a variety of
techniques for all these areas. In the ascending order of scale, these
... home level conversion of organic waste into compost
...small scale production of compost from locally
gathered refuse, to generate small incomes and profits
...systems for hostels, hospitals and hotels to
creatively dispose their wastes
...large schemes for vegetable markets and sewage farms
...techniques for industries to process their waste
solids and liquids
...large scale reclamation of derelict soils for
And he is looking for newer realms and techniques.
Dr Sultan Ismail's life is the kind that
goodnewsindia.com warms up to!
Born in Pondicherry in the year 1951, Sultan
Ismail lost his father at the age of ten. Life then became hard for the
family. Progress through school and
college was by dint of hard work with very little money for extras. It
is remarkable how, low and middle income Indian families set aside a
good portion of their scarce resources for their children' s education. They
may deny themselves almost anything, including food, but the focus on
education as the key to a new kingdom is never lost.
After finishing high school in 1968, he entered New
College in Chennai as an undergraduate and there he remains now as a
researcher. He kept going past milestones: an MSc in 1974 and MPhil in
1978. And then in his post earthworm years, PhD in 1983, work with Dr
Trevor Piearce of Lancaster University, UK in 1983 and 1996, and the
founding of the Institute of Research in Soil Biology and Biotechnology,
Today he stands on the verge of being awarded a DSc.
Here is a man at peace with himself without any
bitterness about the hard early life or the disappointments he has had
along the way in his career.
His many interests in the arts and literature are
reflected in his warm, affectionate personality. His courtesy and
encouragement have created a bunch of cheerful student researchers. So
far 11 have been awarded the PhD. Seven are currently being mentored. In
the great Indian tradition of the guru-sishya symbiosis, a knowledge
pool is being institutionalised
He is amazed by the way the little worm has taken hold
He says he'd feel fulfilled if people put his techniques into
practice and create small successes everywhere. Vermiculture does not create instant results and therefore adoption is slow. But he is
In a village near Chennai women have formed a group to
make compost for profit and in the process clear the neighbourhood of
waste and litter. In Uttar Pradesh, an acre of sodic soil was reclaimed
for cultivation in four years, drawing the attention of farmers nearby
. In Chennai city, hundreds of householders are using Dr. Ismail's
techniques to strike a twin blow for urban life: reduced load on
disposal systems and creation of potted gardens! The dynamic Exnora, a
volunteer group in Chennai organises tens of workshops every year to
teach people the use of vermiculture to create a more responsible
citizenship. Municipalities and industries are beginning to consider vermi-techniques as options available to them.
Like his obsession, the earthworm, Dr Sultan Ismail
keeps burrowing into a heap of possibilities to deliver value. And he is
as unconscious of personal rewards as his beloved worm.
- Institute of Research in Soil Biology &
- New College
- Peters Road
- Chennai 600 014
- Phone: 8237537