M.B. Nirmal, long slated as being the first man to pioneer and institutionalise waste management efforts in Chennai, is still going strong after more than two decades of devoting himself to environmental and social causes in Chennai and other Indian cities through his organisation, Exnora.
He’s a man of mottoes, and word puns. His business card, for example is a prolix, multi-sided conglomerate of various slogans. The one he received an award for is “waste is not wasted until it is wasted,” which to me rang a bit tautological, but is undoubtedly memorable, which he contends is one of the primary goals of any social movement: make people think about what you say—forever.
When I inquired about the pecuniary status of the organisation, he gave a mirthless chuckle, explaining that there is no financial health to be spoken of because he has been bankrolling the organisation for many years, costing him upward of Rs 80,000 to maintain. Later, at a general Exnora meeting in the RKV Film Studios, where Mr. Nirmal was giving a presentation, averred, “I don’t want to make any money out of Exnora because I am the founder.”
And while most of my middle class informants talk about Exnora as being an—important, nonetheless—organisation of yesteryear that has lost its luster, Nirmal and his right-hand man, an energetic recent college grad named King, are quite self-assured that Exnora continues to be the leader in waste and other issues—from women’s rights to mosquito prevention. Exnora’s seniority keeps it on the radar as an expert organisation, especially as it is a central node for many projects that have sprung up around the city having adapted its models (such as the municipality-wide effort to make waste management in Pammal more sustainable).
Like Mr. Indra Kumar and his zero waste home in Pammal, Mr. Nirmal keeps his house as a model. With over 2,000 plants, it is, as he refers to it, mimicking a jungle. “I don’t even want to leave sometimes,” he chuckled. He continues to experiment with different models, with a keen focus on user-friendly composting mechanisms. The most recent is the creation of four different white boxes each with a different colour lid, sitting in square in his plant-ensconced living room. They look like innocuous pieces of furniture when in reality they behold anaerobic compost, dry waste, hazardous waste, and vegetable waste (which becomes compost). When I enquired how he kept the compost from developing an odour, he answered, matter-of-factly, just add this pith (dry remains from coconut skin, for instance).Further, the waste does not typically consist of post-consumer food waste, only vegetable peels and scraps, because very little food is waste in the home.
Mr. Nirmal’s gated community has 300 flats, of which a small fraction are now participating in source segregation and providing vegetable waste for what they call the “City Garden,” which borders one of the open parking lots, but, according to King, it’s Mr. Nirmal’s house that is producing a majority of the compost.
It’s clear that Mr. Nirmal has established his identity—from the flat-level to international-level—as a man of ideas, of solutions. At the aforementioned meeting, which happens weekly and occasionally bimonthly, he averred to the crowd of about 50 Exnora members that it’s imperative that, when they’re delivering speeches to the public, they fixate not on the problem but the solutions.
The meeting consisted mostly of people hailing from middle or upper middle class strata, with exceptions. Of the fifty odd people in the room, only three were women, myself included, an observation which runs counter to the general trope that women are predominantly involved in the waste management milieu and activist issues. Each rose at the start of the meeting to share their “success story” with Exnora, by way of an introduction, but as the meeting proceeded, it became clear that the meeting also served as a space to air grievances. One elderly man, stood up and proclaimed—to scattered ovation—that in order for any change to take place, the “old Exnora” must be resurrected. Specifically, he means going back to the origins of the organisation which was founded on the principles of waste collection, hygiene, and cleanliness. While this proposal was countered vehemently by a loquacious woman who has been working on—most recently—cleaning up the Cooum River, Mr. Nirmal seemed to address it as a possibility for the future, despite her point that efforts would be rendered moot by the Corporation which chooses to contract out its waste collection to private companies (albeit only in three zones).
Mr. Nirmal thrives on the people. He believes that the people, “the social capital,” will be the wheels that drive success of any and all social movements. While he maintains that Exnora is called upon by the Corporation and that they routinely provide expert guidance on a spate of issues, he personally finds it futile to fight with the Corporation and keeps out of fractious politics as much as possible. Change lies in the hands of people alone, a philosophy he intimates as being Gandhian in nature.
The Exnora community provides a window into the pockets of action manifesting throughout Chennai—from the rural to hyperurban areas—with Mr. Nirmal as an ongoing powerhouse, whose energy continues to inspire people to not just move, but to question, to challenge, and to change.