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Friday, September 08, 2006
The Mad Hatter of Nehru Place Greens
Indian environmentalist Kamal Meattle, SM ’67, takes his beliefs to work.
By Gigi Marino
When doctors told Kamal Meattle, SM ’67, that the air in New Delhi was killing him, he was not persuaded to leave his lifelong home. Pollution in Delhi is reported to contribute to the deaths of 10,000 people each year, but Meattle was determined that he would not become a statistic. He set out to create his own healthy climate–and prove his doctors wrong. Ten years later, Meattle runs an office hotel for dozens of clients, and its air is among the purest on the planet.
Meattle (rhymes with “beetle”) is the CEO and director of Paharpur Business Centre and Software Technology Incubator Park, which provides everything a business needs to set up shop, including Internet connections and cleaning and dining services, as well as one of New Delhi’s most sophisticated air-filtering systems outside the operating theater of the Ganga Ram Hospital. It’s just one of several businesses that Meattle owns, but the one that receives the most attention–from him and from the media. The Paharpur Business Centre and Meattle’s work as an environmentalist have been detailed in such publications as the Economist and India’s Financial Express. The picture that emerges is of a man so dedicated to conservation, environmentalism, and recycling that he takes his beliefs into the workplace.
At Meattle’s office hotel, the air is purified by air scrubbers, high-efficiency particulate air filters, and ionizers and then oxygenated by carefully tended, toxin-absorbing plants. Everything that can be recycled is, and energy conservation programs are detailed down to room temperature and light-bulb specs. Meattle believes that the building he has created can serve as a model not only for the city of New Delhi but for the world at large. He has spent a great deal of time in India and abroad convincing corporate leaders, diplomats, energy ministers, and other government officials that his ideas about sustainability, individual responsibility, and respect for the environment can ensure a healthier future for everyone.
“Either you are overwhelmed by the fact that there are so many problems and so many people,” says Meattle, “or you find solutions to help in any way you can.”
The ways that Meattle has found include offering a financial incentive to all his 550 employees to use energy-saving condensed-fluorescent-lamp light bulbs. He also found housing for 118 homeless families who were illegally squatting in a lot next to Paharpur, cleaned up more than 100 truckloads of garbage that littered the area, and turned the lot into Nehru Place Greens by planting 2,000 trees on it. Food scraps from the office hotel are composted so they can fertilize the trees next door.
Not everyone is happy about Meattle’s environmental activism. He says that his life was threatened as a result of one of his antipollution campaigns. However, he has no qualms about filing public-interest litigation or directly confronting those he believes are part of the environmental problem. In the late 1990s, he learned that benzene was being used in India as a fuel additive. Meattle says that benzene exposure greatly increases the chances of getting leukemia; he is especially concerned about traffic police, who are constantly exposed to exhaust fumes. “I told an oil company executive that he was going to hell for poisoning people,” he says. (Since then, and with the urging of others like Meattle, India has begun reducing the percentage of benzene in gasoline.)
Such harsh tactics seem surprising in a man who exudes serenity. Even when impassioned, Meattle doesn’t raise his voice. But he still manages to make himself heard.
Although he’s a member of India’s upper class–he was school chums with Rajiv Gandhi and is on a first-name basis with several dignitaries–Meattle works in modest surroundings. His office is barely large enough for his desk and a small table. A man who decries American SUVs, he says that excess space is wasteful. But he is proud that every office in his office hotel has mesh screens on the windows and hanging plants outside on enclosed balconies, the combination of which, he says, lowers the building temperature by 2 °C and saves 2.4 million BTUs of air conditioning each day.
Meattle also has big plans for solar energy: he wants to use photovoltaic strips to provide power for his next office hotel, which is now on the drawing board. Slated to open in 2008, Haryana Technology Park will be a bigger, better Paharpur Business Centre, on the road to the Taj Mahal; it will employ all the latest green technologies. The goal, Meattle says, is to develop the world’s most energy-efficient building, which fellow MIT alumnus Jasbir Sawhney, MArch ’65, is designing.
Meattle’s activism began humbly. In 1986 he formed the Save the Trees Organisation, hoping to stop trees from being cut down to make wooden apple boxes in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. “I learned that two acres of trees were being chopped to make boxes for every one acre of apples being harvested,” he says. “There had to be a better way.” With the panache of a marketing executive, he enlisted the help of schoolchildren and adapted apple-box designs from New Zealand manufacturers to come up with a sturdier, recyclable corrugated box made of recycled paper and fibers. Because it takes about a cubic foot of wood to make a single wooden box, Meattle estimates that approximately 100 million trees have been saved since 1986. He adds that the corrugated boxes have worked so well for apples that they are now being used for mangoes, oranges, grapes, and cherries, too.
Meattle followed this effort with a campaign to reduce the pollution caused by scooters in Delhi. He surveyed more than 300,000 scooter operators and discovered that nearly all were using the wrong kind of engine oil; instead of using a two-stroke oil designed for lightweight engines like those in scooters, they were not only buying a heavier oil but using too much of it. They erroneously believed “The more oil, the better,” says Meattle. “We got them to change their attitude.” One of his other businesses, a flexible-packaging company, makes recyclable pouches for packaging lubricating oils. But he filed one of two public-interest-litigation suits that led the Supreme Court of India to order oil companies to set up special pumps with a premix of oil and gas, which creates less pollution.
“I did this knowing it would hurt my own business,” he says. “And eventually it did.” With premix pumps in all the major cities in India, Meattle’s company lost sales of at least 20 million pouches per month. “The joke with the other corporate leaders was that I was willing to cut off my own foot,” he says. But because scooter operators switched to the premix, “we saved 229 tons of oil that year.”
Meattle says his ideas have earned him a “mad hatter” reputation in New Delhi over the years. “The politicians could never believe that I didn’t have a vested interest,” he says. “But they’re beginning to understand–slowly.”
Even at MIT, Meattle was a man ahead of his time: he was one of a group of students and professors whose startup company–Select Systems, which he calls “one of the first dot coms”–attempted to develop a computer dating service. Meattle says that his MIT experience gave him the confidence to do things like present New Delhi’s leaders with ideas about how one of the world’s most polluted places can become a “city of excellence.”
“I like to tell people that if I were dropped out of a plane naked anywhere, I would survive because of the things I learned at MIT,” he says. “Before, I would have felt comfortable anywhere in India, but after MIT, I felt comfortable anywhere in the world.”
Copyright Technology Review 2006.