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Updated: January 14, 2013 12:05 IST

Root cause

Subha j rao
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Shantanoo Bhattacharyya, bio-engineering volunteer, Guwahati. Photo: M.Periasamy
The Hindu
Shantanoo Bhattacharyya, bio-engineering volunteer, Guwahati. Photo: M.Periasamy

Bio-engineering volunteer Shantanoo Bhattacharyya speaks about how the humble vetiver can halt nature’s fury

In July 2008, Shantanoo Bhattacharyya was erecting a Bailey bridge in flood-ravaged Lakhimpur, Assam. Walking back to his quarters that night, the executive engineer with the Public Works Department was stopped by a retired school teacher. “Every year, you come to help during the floods. Why can’t you create a system that can be replicated by the common people?” he asked.

That question changed Shantanoo’s life. He realised that all the technology used to help people during calamities was proprietary. And, as a result, very expensive. “We provided people readymade solutions, but never transferred the knowledge,” says this bio-engineering volunteer who was in town to take part in the Indian Roads Congress.

He read up on the Internet for flood prevention solutions and chanced upon the name vetiver — a hardy, native Indian grass known for its extensive root system. In 2009, armed with enough material about vetiver, he tried using it to prevent erosion and flooding along the Kolong and Pagla (‘mad’ river — called so because it is unpredictable and prone to flash floods) rivers in Assam. It was a colossal failure. That’s when the need for a customised solution, based on topography, struck him. “Failure and poverty are great teachers,” he says.

So, Shantanoo went back to reading and research. He saw the limitations of the methods he used. “No tool is magic. It works in certain cases, and does not in others.” He applied the vetiver system on NH 39 (the Nagaland stretch) and NH 40 (Guwahati-Shillong) in partnership with other organisations. The root worked its magic.

Varied uses

In just three years, he has used millions of vetiver plants to prevent soil erosion, strengthen river banks and stabilise hills slopes in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Orissa. In Orissa, he worked with the Tatas to tackle mine overburden (waste from mining that is piled up, sometimes as high as 100 metres.) “They look like scars on the hills. We used cow dung and panchagavya, sourced from Coimbatore, to raise the vetiver. Now, the piles are stable and green. And, many companies nearby have stared using vetiver in their mines too,” he says.

Today, Shanthanoo is sought after by many countries, including Vietnam and Nepal, to help them combat Nature’s fury using natural methods. “You could call it bio-engineering. We use a green tool in combination with new-age technology. These systems have been around since ages. We just need to tap into that native knowledge and prove their use, scientifically,” he says.

He continues to work extensively in the North East. “The region receives heavy rainfall and has a high precipitation rate. Cloud bursts are common. Then, there are the rain cuts, where the water cuts a swathe through the slopes. They drag everything down.” Among his success stories using vetiver are strengthening the high embankment in Majuli (the largest river island in the world), and a 500-metre stretch of the Brahmaputra, said to be the most difficult river to tame.

Elsewhere, the vetiver expert has almost replaced boulder pitching with vetiver. “It boils down to knowing where vetiver will work by itself and where you need to use it with modern methods. If we are judicious in using vetiver, it will benefit all.”

Shanthanoo is a vital part of the World Vetiver Network that shares information on this miracle grass. He is also working to create simple systems that can be followed by all. “A protocol ensures anyone can benefit from vetiver.” He’s also coming up with a manual on river bank protection. Incidentally, the vetiver patch in the Brahmaputra (which cost about Rs. 7 lakh) stands tall, while a similar stretch strengthened using tubular geosynthetic material (costing Rs. 2.3 crore) was a crushing failure.

Three years ago, did Shanthanoo know that a sharp-tipped grass would come to mean the world to him? “No. But, today, I’m proud when someone calls me a vetiver fanatic,” he laughs. Mail him at shantanoo.bhattacharyya@gmail.com

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Mr Bhattachrya has done a great service to the community, this bio-engineering idea should be replicated at war footing in all the regions which get devastated by floods perennially like Bihar plains.

from:  Neha S
Posted on: Jan 15, 2013 at 16:05 IST

India must apply patent for the Vetiver plant. Proud of what you have accomplished Mr.Bhattacharyya!

from:  Radha Senthil
Posted on: Jan 14, 2013 at 23:17 IST

Can we try to grow this in our river beds and also in Coovum, if this can help in water recharging, cleansing the water as seen in the vetiver.org as it helps the community to undertake art works for their living too. May be this might help in reducing the weeds that come up in the ponds /lakes so that water conservation can improve.

from:  Venugopal
Posted on: Jan 14, 2013 at 14:47 IST

Mr. Bhattacharya, Thanks for the laudable efforts!

from:  venkat
Posted on: Jan 14, 2013 at 12:39 IST

The work that Shantanoo Bhattacharyya has undertaken in Assam using Vetiver grass
should be considered as a very important contribution for Assam's search for sustainable
technologies to improve the environment. The Vetiver System has huge potential as a low
cost approach for slope stabilization and erosion control. It also has very important potential
for waste water treatment - a technology that India should use. More about these and other
topics can be found at www.vetiver.org - portal for the Vetiver Network International.
Dick Grimshaw - Director

from:  Richard Grimshaw
Posted on: Jan 13, 2013 at 21:51 IST
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