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To Dr.Ismail, worms are the new alchemists.

Vermiculture can make organic farming healthy, wealthy and wise.

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 are, that

... earthworms alone don't do any magic but the environment in which they thrive, does

... compost production can be scaled up to solve very large problems

... 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 and continuous.

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 are:

... 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 productive use

And he is looking for newer realms and techniques.

The course:

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, in 1994.

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 of him.

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 unfazed.

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 & Biotechnology
New College
Peters Road
Chennai 600 014
Phone: 8237537