SEATTLE — Approximately 780 million people in India, or more than 60% of the population, live on less than $3.10 per day, a problem that has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has instilled a stimulus package to support those in extreme poverty. However, it is imperative that the private sector also takes a stand in supporting low-income communities and rebuilding the economy’s backbone. Three social enterprises in Indore, including Novorbis Technologies, Swaaha Resource Management and Deval’s, are increasing the poor’s access to stability and resources by offering jobs and technologies that nourish their livelihoods.
In India, 75% of air pollution-related deaths related occur in rural areas, which is a problem that disproportionately affects low-income populations. To combat this problem, Harsh Neekhra, co-founder and director of Novorbis Technologies, which means “renewing world,” has helped to develop an effective air purifier. Neekhra states in an interview with The Borgen Project that air pollution has led to the “degradation” of air quality, where “drastic” lockdowns are sometimes enforced to lower the levels of pollutants. Therefore, Neekhra and his colleagues started this venture as a “movement for clean air.”
Novorbis has developed 2 different modules for “particulate” and “gas purification,” which has been tested on outdoor bus stops, traffic squares and waste management plants. This product will eliminate the pollutant from the source, according to Neekhra, and the team plans to sell these air purification units mainly to governments and businesses. Once the product is commercialized, these units will help reduce the aggregate amount of air pollution in India. This effect will be prominent for low-income households, where exposure to air pollution, especially for children, is linked to stunting, poor cognition, vulnerability towards diseases such as diabetes and decreased earnings. Novorbis’ product will therefore improve the health of India’s poor while swelling their economic earnings.
Swaaha Resource Management
India’s rapid urbanization has spawned “62 million tons” (MT) of urban waste per year; only 43 MT is collected, of which 31 MT of waste is dumped in landfill sites. In fact, Jwalant Shah, co-founder and director of business development at Swaaha Resource Management, lived close to a landfill near his dormitories at IIT Indore. Fortunately, Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign to “clean India” in 2014 served as a launchpad for Shah and his colleagues to start Swaaha, Shah states in an interview with The Borgen Project. Indore, the city where Shah and his colleagues founded the company, gave special importance towards being the cleanest city and now represents a benchmark for the rest of India, as it has been landfill-free since 2018.
Shah believes that the problem of waste management lies in the “mindset,” as people are hesitant of social change, and the “execution,” where technology needs to be implemented locally. Shah and his team came up with a creative solution: to process waste on-site with a pick-up truck “retrofitted” with a waste machine, instead of splurging time and money to dump the waste at a site “30 kilometers” (km) outside of Indore. Swaaha employs workers who were previously living in poverty to operate these “bulk waste generators” that serve townships, restaurants and hotels in the area. The waste collected from these places is then converted to organic compost and sold to farmers in bulk or nurses and small packaging.
In addition to sustaining employment for previously impoverished employees, Swaaha efforts are also having a positive impact on people’s health, especially those living in remote, low-income communities, by reducing the harmful effects of improper waste management, and improving environmental conditions. When people are exposed to improperly handled waste, this can cause respiratory problems, blood infections, skin irritations and reproductive issues. Furthermore, poor waste management can lead to water, soil and air continuation, which is destructive to the environment. Therefore, managing waste effectively is crucial to enhancing people’s health and protecting the environment.
Deval’s, an art company that takes metal trash and converts it to artwork, is another company that supports low-income workers by providing employment opportunities. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Deval Verma, its founder, shares his passion for “fusing the arts and design” to fashion “treasure out of scrap” as a Mechanical Engineer graduate with a post-graduate degree in Product Design. Verma describes how designing art from metal is also type of “up-cycling,” a word molded from recycling, where the metal’s “shape or form” is not changed, just creatively reused.
Verma has started an art studio that uses its resources to support college graduates’ and aspiring artists’ skill development. The studio is located outside of Indore in an underprivileged area, and employs local vendors and workers, who are often sons of farmers, to operate the machinery and design artistic works. The initial challenges that Verma and his colleagues faced when founding Deval’s was creating a market for the artwork and running a “compact” timeline. Nonetheless, Deval’s has started working on “monumental” projects, which includes creating 10-15 feet sculptures for parks and squares around India.
These social enterprises in Indore have acclimated to the challenges induced by COVID-19. Novorbis adapted to the pandemic by creating “UV-disinfectant ovens” to improve sanitization, while Swaaha has started developing new products to sanitize surfaces. Deval’s has fortunately retained part of their demand, as is starting work on international projects. Overall, these social enterprises in Indore are empowering low-income households by employing previously poverty-struck workers and offering technological solutions that decrease their exposure to health risks.
– Natasha Nath