PADMA AWARDS

‘Plastic is poor man’s friend’: Padma Shri winner Rajagopalan Vasudevan uses waste to build roads

The ‘Plastic Man of India’ has found a way to reuse plastic waste and to make durable roads.

A 73-year-old retired chemistry professor from the Thiagarajar Engineering College in Madurai was on Thursday named as one of the 73 recipients of the Padma Shri, the government’s fourth highest civilian honour. Rajagopalan Vasudevan is known as the “Plastic Man of India” for devising an innovative way of disposing of plastic waste – by using it to build roads.

In 2002, Vasudevan came up with the idea of spraying dry, shredded plastic waste, made up of pieces as small as 2 mm in size, over gravel or bitumen heated to 170 degrees Celsius. The plastic melted and coated the stones with a thin film. The plastic-coated stones were then added to molten tar. Since both plastic and tar are petroleum products, they bind well. Vasudevan first tried out this technique to pave a road on the college campus. It yielded twin benefits: it reused plastic waste and built durable roads.

Vasudevan is delighted at receiving the Padma Shri. “The award is recognition for socially-relevant work,” he said. “It is not a very advanced technology, it is actually a very simple way of ensuring better roads.”

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Durable, pothole-free roads

Vasudevan’s innovation was patented in 2006 and it generated interest among civic bodies in the country and in Japan and China as well. The professor, however, chose to share the technology with the Indian government for free. It has since been used to build over 100,000 km of roads in at least 11 states, including Tamil Nadu.

In a bid to recycle plastic in an environmentally sound manner, the government made it mandatory in November 2015 for road developers to mix plastic with bitumen while constructing roads.

Since 2013, India has been generating around 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste daily, or 5.6 million tonnes a year, according to a report released by the Central Pollution Control Board. Only a fraction of this is recycled or reused.

“To lay one kilometre of road, you need one tonne of plastic,” explained Vasudevan. “This translates to 10 lakh plastic carry bags. Today, India has 41 lakh km of road, and we do not have enough plastic to convert all of them into plastic roads. So we should not have any problem in disposing of plastics in the future using this technology.”

Another benefit of using plastic to build roads is that it reduces the quantity of bitumen needed, thereby bringing down costs.

“A plastic road needs only 9 tonnes of bitumen and one tonne of plastic, unlike normal roads that need 10 tonnes of bitumen per kilometre,” he said. “The plastic road’s life is not less than 10 years. No potholes will be formed during monsoon.”

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Chemistry teacher, innovator

Vasudevan credits his innovation to his love for chemistry. He started his career as a teacher in 1972, when he joined a polytechnic institute in Tamil Nadu. He was 26 then. “Many people laughed at the fact that after getting a PhD in chemistry, I was working in a polytechnic institute,” he said. “But that was the starting point that taught me to think differently. After working there for three years, I could understand the importance of chemistry to mankind. It opened my eyes to the fact that chemistry has applications everywhere.”

Vasudevan joined the Thiagarajar Engineering College in 1975. In the early 2000s, as he neared the end of a long career in teaching, he started working on his idea of plastic roads and waste management. He retired from the college in 2003 but was called back and appointed dean. At the same time, he worked as a consultant to several firms.

The Plastic Man has more innovations to his name, among them corrosion-free rods and “plastone” blocks, a mixture of plastic and stone used for flooring. He received several awards for his work, including the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Memorial award for Innovation in Governance earlier this year. His research was showcased on the television talk show Satyameva Jayate as an innovative solution to the growing problem of plastic.

As the call for a ban on plastic grows stronger across the country, Vasudevan feels the plastic industry must be supported instead. “People can use plastics and reuse it for road-laying,” he said. “Plastic is the poor man’s friend. In villages, where 70% of people live, they use plastic mats, plastic chairs, plastic carry bags… without it, they cannot live. So we cannot ban plastics, but we have to find a better method to dispose of it.”

 India generates around 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste daily. (Photo credit: AFP)
India generates around 15,342 tonnes of plastic waste daily. (Photo credit: AFP)
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.