Trip to Mudumalai

Today marks the end of our third week in Coimbatore. It has been a busy week, so I really haven’t had time to update the blog (although I figure you all probably had more interesting things to do than read my blog. If not, I’m flattered)

On Monday and Tuesday, the Sankara and Siruthuli teams went on a trip to Mudumalai Tiger Preserve. We had worked the past two Saturdays, so we were looking forward to a well-deserved vacation.

Our first stop was in Ooty, a hill station in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. Ooty was originally a tribal land that was then turned into a hill station and was a favorite of the British during the colonial period. Now, it is very popular with Indian tourists. Ooty is very famous for its tea plantations, so we visited a plantation and bought some tea for our people back home. The best part of Ooty was the climate–it is 20 degrees cooler in Ooty than in Coimbatore, so we were all enjoying the break from the heat.  Here are some pictures from Ooty (Credit to Mercedes for the pictures). The first is from the Ooty Rose Garden, the second is the view of Ooty from the Rose Garden, and the final picture is the team at Doodabetta, the highest peak in the Nilgiri Hills.

While Mudumalai is famous for its tigers, we didn’t see any (unfortunately). But, we did get to see some elephants!

The guest house that we stayed at was a no-frills place, but we all really enjoyed the remoteness of the area. Lisa taught us how to play Solo, a card game taught to her by her friend from the Netherlands. We also had an amazing dinner at the guest house. It was very basic–just a vegetable subzi and dahl, but was possibly the best meal that I have had during my entire stay in India. It was also really interesting talking to the gentlemen who ran the lodge–one was a local tribal from the Nilgiri hills, and the other lived in the local village. It was great learning about their histories and how they have seen the park change over the years.

One thing I did notice that alarmed me was the amount of trash that was present all along the park. It seemed that there were not that many garbage bins present around the roads, so people threw their garbage along the side of the roads. Considering that Mudumalai is a protected area, I was curious as to why a) people were consciously throwing trash and b) why it was not cleaned up on a regular basis. Anyone have any ideas? I am not sure how the national park system in India works…

On a lighter note, here are a few pictures of the guest house and our meal together.

Finally, on the way back we stopped at a tea plantation to have a cup of tea(a change from South Indian filter coffee) and lounge around.

Over the weekend, I’ll post an entry about our meeting with Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam–Siruthuli is having a celebration for his 80th birthday on Saturday and our whole team is coming. I am excited to meet him and hopefully we will have good pictures!


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Change of plans

This week, we had a pretty eye-opening tour of the Valankulam tank by Mr. Ilangovin, an engineer from the Tamil Nadu Department of Public Works. The whirlwind tour took us from the encroachments surrounding the tanks, to the inlet points of Valankulam, to the hospitals that feed their waste into the tank.

While the primary goal of the field trip was to understand the catchment area of Valankulam tank, our secondary goal was to gather data. Specifically, we needed to understand how much wastewater each structure creates and whether or not that wastewater is toxic.

Our first stop was the bus station that borders the tank. Mr. Ilongovin worked his connections and let us have a discussion with the manager of the bus station. He told us that they wash 150 buses a day and use approximately 100 liters of water per bus. That means that total wastewater per day is 150 X 100 = 15,000 liters of water per day. This wastewater is also not treated or filtered. Luckily, it was not toxic wastewater.

Our next stop were the encroachments that surrounded the Valankulam tank. At first, I was relieved to see that they had a closed toilet system. However, the residents informed us that these toilets were not working. The women had their own private toilets, but then men had none. To make matters worse, the waste flows directly into the tank, unfiltered.

The first picture is the toilets under maintenance and the rest are pictures of the encroachments and the residents who were kind enough to let us take photographs of their neighborhood.

We were told that there were 1,000 families staying in the encroachments, with an average of 5 persons per family. So, that made the encroachment population equal to 5,000.  If we assume that each person creates 137 liters of wastewater per day (yes, I found this to be quite high as well, but I checked it with a variety of sources. Anyone else have any other numbers?), this meant that 685, 000 liters of wastewater was created per day at the encroachments. I found this estimate to be quite high…

Our next stops were the hospitals that surround the area.The frustrating part of that experience was that the hospital workers did not keep very good records of wastewater usage. All of the data that we collected was approximate, and the values changed throughout the conversation. In addition, the hospitals claimed that they filtered non-toxic wastewater and toxic wastewater separately, but then their stories changed.

We were pretty hot, frustrated, and confused by the time we regrouped at the Siruthuli office. Below, you can find some of the inlet points of Valankulam that are clogged with waste.

After our site visit and a conversation with Dr. Rohilla from Center for Science and Environement in Delhi, we realized that we needed to take a step back. Our initial plan of figuring out how to deal with the sewage problem in Valankulam was a little bit too ambitious. After all, we are not engineers and we only have four weeks to complete the project. In addition, we were informed that in order to make those types of decisions, we would need to conduct water samples, a topographic analysis, and measure how the tank has changed over time. This was clearly out of our comfort zone.

We are looking into providing high level strategy for how Siruthuli should embark on its plan to clean up Valankulam. The first thing that we identified was that Siruthuli needs to do a thorough analysis of the tank. This includes the biological, chemical, and physical components. It is only then that a decision can be made about how the water can be treated. Additionally, we found that there are several other large NGOs who deal with water quality. If Siruthuli partnered with these NGOs, it could absorb the knowledge and experience of these larger organizations. Lisa, Cordula, and I are also tapping into our personal and professional networks in order to find potential partners. Anyone know of any NGOs dealing with water quality in India?

So, I am feeling a little more optimistic about our project now. I am excited aboutthe product that we are creating!

In other news, we have been taking yoga classes at the hotel, and everyone has been progressing tremendously! Take a look at Sverre doing a pretty complicated pose, and Lisa observing him very seriously… (thanks Mercedes for the pictures!!)

Last night, we went to Anjappar, a tasty South Indian restaurant focused on Non-Veg food. We were served on banana leaves, and everyone had a great time. It’s funny–everywhere we go in Coimbatore, we are treated with such hospitality. I am going to miss this when I go back to the US…


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First weekend in Coimbatore…

The IBM India 12 team had its first weekend in Coimbatore. It’s funny–in the US, we always seem to gripe about weekend work, but in India–at least at Siruthuli– employees work all the time, mainly because they love their work.

The entire Siruthuli extended family (employees, volunteers, board members) meet on Saturday mornings at 7:30am to review any business or pressing needs. Then they put in a full day of work at the office. Mr. Mylswami often comes to work in the evening (9pm onwards) if there is any other business to be taken care of. The dedication of the Siruthuli team amazes me and inspires me. When I asked him if he ever gets tired of working, he looked at me in a confused way. “I love my work,” he replied. That was all he needed to say.

Also, the Siruthuli office is quite interesting. It is almost completely powered by solar and wind energy. There is a windmill on the roof, as well as solar panels. I have to say, it is a struggle to work in 90+ degree temperature heat without an AC, but we are managing. It is amazing how we can adjust to situations when given some time. Take a look at some pictures.  The first two are of the power sources for the Siruthuli office. The last picture is of Lisa and Cordula hard at work at the office.

Our weekend started on Saturday night, as we worked on Saturday in order to make up for the one day that we will be taking off to go to Bandipur National Park. We all went out to dinner at the Afghan Grill at the Residency Hotel in Coimbatore ( According to TripAdvisor, this is the top ranked restaurant in Coimbatore. As much as we all love the amazing dosa and sambar we have had here, it seemed that we all wanted a little change of pace.

The restaurant proved to be amazing! We all enjoyed wonderful kabobs (vegetarian and non-vegetarian), wine, beer, and a lot of laughs. It was a great way to wrap up a busy first week in Coimbatore (Credit to Mercedes for the pictures).

First picture (L to R): Vaclav (IBM Czech Republic), Benjamin (IBM USA but originally from Peru), Mercedes (IBM Spain), Me, Gaston (IBM Argentina), Amanda (IBM Argentina but originally from Brazil), Sverre (IBM Norway), Alex (IBM Brazil), and Lisa (IBM Netherlands)

Second picture (L to R): Alex (IBM Brazil), Me, and Vaclav (IBM Czech Republic)

The next day, we all had some different activities planned. A group of people went to Topslip, a wildlife area near Coimbatore. Lisa and Cordula went to Bangalore to meet with some IBM colleagues. I went with Mr. Mylswami to the site of the October 15th celebration with Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.

October 15th is the birthday of Dr. Kalam, the former president of India. Dr. Kalam is beloved by many in India as a pioneer in the field of science and technology and for his devotion to the community. I was even more excited when Vanitha said that we could speak with him–my goal is to have our team sit with him for 5 minutes and post the interview on YouTube. Let’s see how lucky we are…

Here are some pictures of Vanitha and the rest of the Siruthuli team looking into the site.

The Siruthuli team has been working non-stop to get this program ready. There will be over 3,000 people attending, mostly rural school children, so there is a lot of pressure to get the job done well. I have no doubts that the program will be a success.

In terms of other fun stuff, Lisa, Cordula, and I went to Brookfield mall in order to take a look at a fabric store. Before I came to Coimbatore, I heard that it was the “Manchester of South India,” so I wanted to be sure that I got some good quality clothing made. It seemed that “Madam” (as Vanitha is called) made some calls to the fabric store, so they knew that we were coming. I bought some western style dress shirt fabric for myself, and Cordula and Lisa bought some fabric to make saris.

At the store, they also showed us some great handmade saris, as well as a demonstration on how a sari is made. Check it out!

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Researching, Writing, and Learning

We have wrapped up our first week in Coimbatore and at Siruthuli and I can’t believe how fast time has gone!

On Wednesday and Thursday we modified the statement of work based on our initial discussions with Vanitha. We also created a work breakdown structure to plan how we will achieve our goals. It’s funny how we still use IBM methods (WBS, SOW, etc) when we are doing a completely different type of project.

Initially, IBM was tasked to create a strategic plan to deal with the water hyacinth problem in the tank. Check out a picture of water hyacinths below.

They look relatively harmless, but they spread around the tank like crazy. The plant sucks up all of the available water and if it spreads all over the surface of the tank, it renders the tank useless.

While we agreed that this was a major issue, we also wanted to take a step back and deal with the larger issue of pollution in the Valunkulam tank. Basically, a lot of sewage is being dumped into the Valunkulam tank without being filtered properly. I was sold on the idea when we visited a reservoir that had men catching fish from a clearly polluted reservoir and selling the fish to customers. While water hyacinths are a major problem, I couldn’t stand the idea that fish from contaminated waters were being sold to customers.


I made a very  rough sketch of the as is process for the tank, that you can find below.

To make matters worse, the hospital that is nearby has its sewage flowing into the Valankulam tank without the use of a separate treatment plant. After talking to some experts, we learned that hospital waste cannot  be treated in the same plant as industrial or agricultural waste. Therefore, the as-is scenario is a major issue.

One alternative that was presented by the Tamil Nadu Department of Public Works can be found below.

As you can see, this still does not really do too much about the hospital waste. So, one initial option that we came up with was building decentralized plants rather than centralized plants. These plants have less capacity to handle waste, but they are cheaper to build and easier to govern. We have done a lot of research and successful decentralized waste water treatment plants (DEWATS as they are called) have been built all over India.

On Tuesday, we are talking to Dr. Rohilla from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi about their experience with DEWATS. It seems that they have a lot of good information. Putting together a rough sketch, this is what my proposed option would be:

From our research, we would need two decentralized plants to handle all the waste created, as well as a separate wastewater plant to deal with toxic waste from the hospital. The good thing is that decentralized plants are much cheaper than centralized tanks, so the costs would be less.

Does anyone have any experience with dealing with decentralized wastewater treatment plants? None of us are civil engineers, so any help would be appreciated!!


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Ah, we are here for work

The first few days in Coimbatore were so busy with fun activities that I forgot that we are here for work, not just for fun!

So the past two days of work have been quite intense, to say the least. On Wednesday, Sampath, the hydrologist at Siruthuli, took us to the tanks around the area in order to get an idea of how we will be tackling our problem.

One really interesting thing that we saw was the garbage dump site for the city of Coimbatore. They had a very novel approach of spraying the garbage with a microbe solution to kill germs and the smell of the garbage. So, while we were surrounded by trash, the smell was not unbearable. Here is a picture of me with the solution, as well as an employee spraying the solution onto garbage being brought from the city.


Cordula was brave enough to actually go into the garbage sites and take pictures

The last place that we visited was the water purification site. The chemists at the plant were very kind to provide us with a tour of the site and explain how it works. This will come in handy, as our goal as a team is to figure out how we can integrate a water treatment plant into the Valunkulam tank to decrease pollution. My next post will be more about our statement of work and our work approach. But, more on that in the next post.

For now, take a look at these pictures. The first one is a bucket of the treated water. It used to be all brown (sewage water), but when it is treated, it looks much clearer. The next picture is of the treatment plant itself. The final picture is our team with the chemists who allowed us to take a look at the plant.


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First couple of days…

So IBM’s India Team 12 has arrived and settled into our hotel in Coimbatore. My 16 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai arrived without a hitch. I had a funny experience at the airport–I was waiting at the gate when  a lady asked me if she could use my cell phone to call her relatives in the US to let them know that she had arrived. She only spoke Gujarati, so our communication was limited. However, after I let her use my phone, she was so thankful and offered me some aloo subzi (potato vegetable curry) and some paratha. It was a wonderful gesture–it reminded me of the spirit of Indian hospitality and was a great start to my trip.

We stayed one night at Hotel Planet in Mumbai as our team started to filter in. The next morning, we hopped on a flight to Coimbatore. Here is the team waiting to get to the hotel in Coimbatore.

On Monday, we started working with our team on our projects. The Siruthuli team met Vanitha and her partners for the first time. It was quite exciting! Here is a picture of us reviewing the work that they have done thus far on the Valunkulam Tank

Tomorrow, we will go to the Valunkulam Tank and the Siruthuli office for the first time. I’ll post some pictures of the office and the tank tomorrow…


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I can’t believe that in one week we will be embarking on our trip! As you can see from the picture, I have a lot to pack. At least I have my passport…

Last week, we had the opportunity to talk to Virginia Sharma, the VP of Marketing and Communications for IBM India on a conference call. It was very interesting to hear about IBM’s expansion plans in India, and especially the history of IBM in India.

It looks like IBM’s Coimbatore office is just getting started as it opened for the first time in June 2011. This creates an exciting opportunity for our India Team 12 to create a strong initial presence for IBM in Coimbatore. On our last call, Lisa and I discussed traveling to the IBM Bangalore office to visit a much larger office and get an idea of how business is done in India.

In project news, we just received a copy of the prior research that the Siruthuli organization has done on the pollution concerns of the Valunkulam tank. I was really impressed by the thoroughness of the research–they have done a lot of great work, I’m curious about where we will fit in!

I am attaching a presentation that Siruthuli shared with us about its goals and structure. It is a large file, but please take a look! #ibmcsc

Giving Back – 25.02.2011

A lot of work to go...

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