Garbage dumps are definitely not a pleasant sight. The rotting vegetables, food leftovers, meat and bones, plastic, paper, glass, cloth, and what have you… you don’t even want to go anywhere near them. Yet, all of this comes from millions of our homes and commercial establishments. Even if we were to conscientiously segregate the wet and dry waste, civic authorities alone could not tackle the volume of material discarded; the problem of garbage disposal has assumed such gargantuan proportions.

Into this concern steps Nirmala Lathi, and other individuals who make a difference. By ensuring that their households have absolutely no wet garbage to give to the garbage collector each morning, they have already addressed a major chunk of the problem. And what happens to the wet garbage? Look around their homes - it is being used to nourish flower beds and pots, and kitchen gardens. Papayas, pomegranates, coconuts, sugarcane, betel nuts, roses, lotuses, ferns, lawns, house plants, leafy vegetables, tomatoes, chillies… they are all out there, growing healthily in treated wet household waste. That's Nirmala Lathi's method of vermiculture for you. Using no soil whatsoever, and using organic garbage treated with a specific type of bio-culture, she has developed a process that not only helps cultivate a bountiful garden, but which also effectively deals with the garbage generated by you.

A movement that was initiated in 1997 with just a handful of pots on Nirmala's terrace has now spread to include scores of individual gardens, numerous housing societies, and even hospitals. Take Dr. Anand Railkar, for instance. A general surgeon practising 20 kilometres outside Pune city, he is also called upon to deliver babies, and his hospital generates all kinds of human waste. "Being a rural doctor, I remain outside the Pune Municipal Corporation's limits of organising hospital waste incineration, and not everybody can afford to buy incinerators. For me, this process of bio-culture cultivation has proved useful in the safe disposal of organic hospital waste, including human placentas, sanitary napkins, and all kinds of dressing material soaked in blood and serum," he says.

What Railkar has done is construct a cement pit of 6 by 6 feet, with two compartments. In the bottom compartment, Lathi's bio-culture has been scattered, and in here goes all the garbage that has been segregated beforehand. Once an adequate amount of decomposed manure has been prepared from this waste, it is removed from the top compartment to be used in the neighbouring garden. "There is no risk, and I have no fears removing the manure even with my bare hands. This method is definitely quicker, and safer, compared to my earlier practice of burning the waste, and then waiting till it all decomposed before planting a tree on that spot," says Railkar.

"I would definitely advocate this process of waste management to all medical practitioners who have some space of their own," says Dr. Dhananjay Kashikar, a Pune-based paediatrician. He and his wife, a gynaecologist, run a maternity home, which has been practising Lathi's techniques for the past 10 years. "There is no smell, no flies, very quick decomposition of hospital waste whose disposal otherwise poses a big problem, and what you have in hand is good quality manure for your plants," he says.

Considering that the process is also low-cost, low-maintenance, and with no recurring expenses, it is no wonder that Lathi has been invited to 53 places outside her native Pune to give lectures on this subject. Over 50,000 people have visited her terrace garden to see the benefits of this experiment and take away some bio-culture and gardening knowledge. New housing societies, which are now required to have a waste disposal and management system on their premises in order to get no-objection certificates from the government, are her regular clients.

"This process of bio-culture cultivation has proved useful in the safe disposal of organic hospital waste, including human placentas, sanitary napkins, and all kinds of dressing material soaked in blood and serum."

- Dr. Anand Railkar
General Surgeon.

 •  Film: Solid waste management
To begin with, what you need is kitchen waste like vegetables and fruit scraps, stale food, bony fragments, egg shells, rotten jams and jellies, coconut shells, maize, chaff, etc. Other household organic waste that can be put to use is fragments of cut nails, and hair. If you already have some semblance of a garden, then dried leaves, flowers, branches, feathers can also be put to use. Non-bio-degradable waste like glass, paper, plastic, metal, cannot be employed in this process.

This organic waste cannot act alone. It needs the presence of a vermiculture mix that converts garbage into organic fertiliser. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria in this bio-culture provide the plants with the necessary nutrients absorbed from the organic waste. What Lathi and her husband Dr. Ashok, a surgeon, realised was that if roots of the plants are provided with nutrients, they do not require soil to grow in. Once this concept was in place, the couple worked on standardisation - especially to determine the proportion of bio-culture to garbage.

"For 10 kilos of organic waste, you require one kilo of bio-culture," explains Lathi. "Similarly, for 1 square metre of flower bed, five kilos of bio-culture are needed. Two kilos of culture are sufficient for about three-four pots, and the garbage generated by a four-member family feeds about seven medium-sized pots. Getting these proportions right is important," she cautions. The process thereafter requires no more calculations. In a pot with a drainage hole, layers of garbage are alternated with a fistful of the culture. The plant (along with the mud around the roots that gives the plant its initial stability) should be placed in a hollow created in the preparation. "After that, one should not use soil at all," Lathi reiterates. "A mixture of soil and culture is not desired at all."

This is all there is to the initial process. One need not buy new stocks of bio-culture for newer plants, as this is created in the first pot itself. "It's like the fermentation of curds. You mix a small amount of curds to milk and you get a fresh pot. And the process continues. That is what happens with the bio-culture," she says. A cycle then needs to be set for adding fresh garbage. For example, the daily garbage generated by a family of four is enough for one pot. Hence, seven pots can be cultivated by adding garbage once a week to each pot. What you have are greener, more produce-yielding plants, and most importantly, no wet garbage at all.

What's more, the garbage does not smell, and does not attract flies or mosquitoes. It does not have to be periodically replaced either, a practice common to soil cultivation. Due to the moisture released by the wet garbage, one can leave the plants un-watered for a longer period. The extra water that drains away is clear, without carrying the vermiculture or stinking garbage with it. Chemical fertilisers are a no-no. In fact, Lathi insists that the plants rarely need any superficial supplements. Since nutrients are readily available to the roots, they do not have to grow too deep (and thus large) before producing fruits and flowers; this also protects the pots from being broken as the plants grow in size.

For Lathi and her family, this method has become a mission. Her sons are seen hauling piles of garbage from other homes in order to provide for her terrace garden, earning her the nickname of Kachrewali bai (garbage lady) in her neighbourhood. "The unattended garbage lying around our homes and streets used to upset me a great deal. I was eager to find a way for its efficacious disposal. At the same time, I was also looking for eco-friendly ways to grow my garden," she says, narrating the beginnings of this journey. "Therefore, my husband and I put the two together and experimented with various methods of cultivation. Sheila Christian, known for her promotion of vermicompost (using earthworms), inspired me greatly. But the thought of earthworms in your plants is not too appealing, and I also wanted to do away with soil. Hence, we came up with this method," she continues.

And it has yielded fruit. Who doesn't want solutions to deal with the garbage menace, and at the same time have lush greenery and fresh fruits and vegetables right at the doorstep? It's a double bonanza alright!