The path to tackle the waste problem in India is a long one, requiring thorough on-the-ground research and formulating policies based on Empirical evidence.

Sourabh Manuja, our next pathbreaker, Fellow at TERI, conducts research into policies and strategies that help cities, states and nations and even corporates make relevant decisions. 

Sourabh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from the Interview Portal about leveraging his background in Environmental Engineering to research, consult and design approaches that can make an impact on the pollution and sustainability challenges we face.

For students, look at the world around you and you can see several opportunities to heal our environment !

Sourabh, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in a small town in western Uttar Pradesh, and did my schooling from Our Lady of Fatima, Aligarh.  My father is a cloth merchant and my mother is a housewife. I did my diploma in civil engineering from AMU and left studies in 2003, as I had no interest to study more. After spending almost a year in society, running a business with my father and realising my vulnerabilities (being less qualified), I made the decision to study further. My objective to study was not to gain marks, but to learn more. With the background of having done a diploma course and only a few options, I did an advance diploma in Environmental engineering from AMU. With god’s grace and guidance from my teachers I completed the diploma with 1st position in the 2004-2005 batch.

As a student at AMU and due to my love for Urdu language, I used to write poetry for my friends. Driving and cycling have always been my favourite pastimes and I always loved to explore nature. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

With a keen interest in environmental engineering, zeal to learn more and mentorship of my teacher Dr Faisal Zia Siddiqui (at AMU), I did my Bachelors in Technology (Environmental Engineering) from Hindustan College of Science and Technology, Mathura affiliated to Uttar Pradesh Technical University (with 4th position in state of U.P.) from 2007-2010. Thereafter, I completed my MTech in Environmental Science and Engineering (Part Time -Regular) from Jamia Millia Islamia (2014-2017) with a Gold Medal. My mentor Dr Faisal Zia Siddiqui has been the greatest driver in pushing me to complete my masters. However, my wife has also been a very strong pillar, allowing me to take up such adventures in life.  

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

The courses I pursued before doing my B.Tech was by chance, and due to a lack of clarity of different career options. Thereafter, my decision for pursuing environmental engineering was my choice. My internship at Global Enviro Control Systems(GECS), Aligarh and my first job in 2005 at Tetra Tech India Limited (a US based consultancy), which I left due to my own vulnerabilities, were motivators to study more and learn more.

My first professional mentor, Late Dr P. A. Saini (Professor at AMU and lead consultant at GECS) has been a role model, for his conceptual knowledge, hardworking nature and dedication. He was a IIT-Kanpur pass out and did his PhD in solid waste management, at a time when we weren’t even discussing management of waste in India. He was an entrepreneur and a great environmental engineer. Another influencer in my life has been my father, who always taught me that time is the most valuable asset and commitments to time are to yourself.

I was also blessed to be associated with Dr Faisal Zia Siddiqui who was from IIT Delhi and had vast industry experience. I wrote papers along with him. He was the one who taught me how to write research papers and engage in policy discussions. I still remember presenting my first paper in a conference at NIT-Rourkela in 2005 when I was 21 years old. During my graduation, we used to sit for long daily sessions and through vacations writing manuscripts for Journals. This even continued over weekends, when i was working.

The pride that these national and international journal publications gave me were the sparks of appreciation that used to drive me and gave me immense motivation. Further, my habit of writing poetry used to help me in writing manuscripts in a flow.

After my B.Tech in 2010, I was selected on campus by MM Aqua Technologies Limited, Gurugram. I worked in design and marketing of wastewater components and was looking after large projects and exports. My passion to write manuscripts, as well as being in marketing helped in grooming my skills and pushed me to study ahead. With admission in Jamia Millia Islamia, and a mismatched job profile which involved frequent travel, I was looking for a job near campus. So, I got this job as an Associate Fellow in The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). My publications were key in securing this job in research in 2014.  

With my increasing responsibilities in personal life and my passion to serve the environmental sector, I decided to work from my hometown starting Jan 2019. Looking at my delivery and motivations at work I was asked to be a consultant at TERI, designated as a fellow (Sr Researcher), as work from home was not allowed as an institutional policy. This had actually put me in a position of vulnerability, as I was contracted to work on hourly rates. However, this was motivating as well, as I could lead as many as 18 projects in 2019. I started taking up projects with passion including during weekends. I also started operating a small office in Aligarh where I could engage interns to keep my teaching skills updated as well as to maintain an office atmosphere. 

This risk, even motivated me to register a small startup Global Green Envirosystems in the same office where Lt Prof P A Saini used to operate, and tie-up with an earlier colleague who started Innovative Cooling solution to provide support in design and marketing of wastewater components. My passion for writing continued and till date I have written 36 research papers, 4 news articles and co-authored chapters in 5 different books. I have also been cited in numerous news articles and magazines.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My first internship at GECS was a stepping stone to my current career path. I used to work under Late Prof P.A.Saini to assist him in writing environmental impact assessment reports for developmental projects. We used to assist industries in managing their effluent treatment plants and even model augmentation of water distribution networks and design air pollution control devices. This was a vast area of environmental engineering and an opportunity to serve mother earth and humanity. I still remember the joy and pride associated with my first internship stipend which was INR 2000.00. However, the key motivation was learning these new concepts which were associated with the way nature works (environmental engineering). 

Further motivation and guidance from Dr Faisal Zia Siddiqui led me to pursue my graduation along with short term assignments from GECS and thereafter opt for a design and marketing job at MM Aqua Technologies Limited. I was a design and marketing engineer, learning and promoting concepts of attached growth treatment technologies and high rate sedimentation around the globe. Being in a private job and with limited jobs around my hometown, where my family was, I opted for post-graduation, to increase my opportunities. Now, with post-graduation requiring regular attendance of more than 75% and classes throughout weekdays from early 7:30a.m. – 9:30a.m., I had to switch to a job with less frequent travel. I am thankful to Dr Suneel Pandey (Director-TERI) who allowed me to work for him and pursue this course simultaneously. He has been a great boss throughout my engagement. Further, I was also focused on work from my hometown and was able to balance my personal and professional life, thanks to TERI which gave me this option starting January 2019. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first full time job was with Tetra Tech India Limited. It was June 05, 2005 on World Environment Day when I was selected and joined on the very same day to work in the domain of solid waste management as an environmental engineer. Due to my academic performance and sincerity I was referred by Dr Faisal Zia Siddiqui for this job. My experience of being associated with GECS also helped in cracking this interview.  

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: The first challenge in research, coming from a design and marketing background was to understand how to conduct literature search and do emission modelling to estimate a country’s emission from the waste sector. This was a totally new area of work for me and I had to cope up with this challenge. I had to study a lot. I used to read and prepare important notes of the latest information on the sector. My hobby of writing papers actually helped me cope up this challenge easily. I finally succeeded in formulating these models which helped India in formulating nationally determined contributions.

Challenge 2: The second challenge was to formulate proposals for international funders. As requests for proposals from the international community had everything written in it and we used to wonder what they wanted in a page limit of 3-6 pages. But, with guidance from our international partner we could learn the art of writing methodologies and bring uniqueness in our proposals. This was a great learning experience which has helped in grooming my skills and make me a more valuable asset to my organization. 

Challenge 3: The third challenge has been to identify site survey teams for onsite projects we undertake. HR in our institute was weak in recruiting members who can work in day/night shifts to audit municipal services. To cope up this challenge, I have used my contacts with Jamia students and my M Tech classmates which helped us recruit. In fact, we used to hire candidates with reference contacts and essential qualifications to build a trustable team that can work efficiently and together to achieve the objective.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am working in research, marketing and consulting. At an individual level, I work as a fellow in TERI, managing their projects and conducting research, primarily in the solid waste sector. Simultaneously, I help in design and marketing of wastewater treatment components. 

I am into research, and my area of research is municipal solid waste and related climate change aspects. The research that I do is not lab work, but research into policies and strategies that help cities, states and nations and even corporates make relevant decisions. 

The kind of projects i undertake range from – calculating GHG emissions from waste sector; formulating market based instruments to reduce GHG emissions from municipal waste; help states develop plans to reduce emissions from waste sector; help ministries evaluate the implications of their policies on climate change;  piloting Nationally appropriate mitigation action (NAMA) in municipal solid waste sector for India;  evaluating recyclability of certain products (like Tetra Pak cartons and straws) and associated barriers, to enhance their sustainability; conduct training programs for waste sector stakeholders -to help manage waste with appropriate hierarchy. 

I have also led many first of its kind of project which involved audits of mechanised road sweeping operations for Delhi corporations; audits of municipal waste management services for cities like Varanasi, east delhi, south delhi, north delhi, new delhi municipal council; waste characterisation at Gurugram. My projects also include performance evaluations of waste to energy plants (incineration), and environmental audits for the petrochemical and fertilizer industry and last but not the least I have also worked for implementing projects related to WaSH and preparing a comprehensive industry document (COINDS) for the automobile sector.

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

The skills required for these tasks are primarily MS office, team management and of course basic concepts of Environmental Science and Engineering. Other important aspects that helped me groom my career was my dedication to work for mother earth and zeal to learn more.

What’s a typical day like?

I spend my days either working through my system, writing reports, or being on site coordinating with site teams, meeting with clients and government stakeholders. It is an interesting mix which even allows me to explore cities across nations.   

What is it you love about this job? 

The best thing about this job is the satisfaction to contribute in the sustainable development domain, both in the solid waste and wastewater sector. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work has been beneficial to society directly. Be it auditing Municipal solid waste management systems for cities or mechanized road sweeping operations. My work has spanned from analyzing waste at dumpsites/Landfills to developing work plans for cities to reduce their GreenHouse Gas emissions.

In the wastewater domain, I have helped industries adopt efficient wastewater treatment technologies and retrofit existing treatment units. Helping them save the environment and conserve water.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There are many memorable projects that I did during my professional journey. One of these was to analyze the physical characteristics of waste getting disposed of at Bhanwari landfill in Gurugram. Whereby, instead of appointing labor to do water characterisation, I had my interns from different institutes and junior colleagues. The objective was not to only identify waste characteristics, but also to train more and more professionals on how such characterisation is done. This study was technically supported by SCS engineers USA who had a vast experience of analyzing waste in different countries. Mind it, this was not at all an easy job, to collect 20 samples of about 100 kgs each and distribute them over 30+ categories for 4 long days, at the landfill itself. The interns who performed well, were appointed to work as consultants in other projects.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Students should study with a vision and a goal. Studying only for high grades may let you get a high paying job, but will not keep you motivated.  

Further, why do you need jobs? We need to move out of this mentality and be an entrepreneur in our field of qualification. 

Future Plans?

With a vision to further my gained knowledge and experience in consulting, marketing and research, my venture was started in 2019. This gave me flexibility to explore my limits (with multiple tasks) and networks to build upon an organisation that can deliver effective sustainable solutions. In turn, I get job security and a chance to offer a unique employment experience to budding professionals.  

In future, I plan to expand my network, hire efficient candidates and conduct further consulting, marketing and research in waste sector. I would also like to train young minds and help them shape their career, to multifold my aim to serve mother earth.