Building a Better India

Sidhant Pai, Indian environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at MIT, has developed three projects focused on waste recycling solutions, air pollution monitoring and education of underserved communities. 

Often when people come to the United States to study at an Ivy League college, they’re focused on honing their craft to give back to their country. And Sidhant Pai, Indian environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is no different. He is the co-founder of the Pune-based social enterprise Protoprint Solutions Pvt. Ltd. and nonprofit Social Seva, where he developed socially-conscious projects to make India cleaner and greener.

Excerpts from an interview.

Could you tell us about the projects you are involved with?

Our longest running and most established initiative is called Protoprint. The model is to work collaboratively with waste-pickers in India to convert waste plastic into 3D printer filament. Waste-pickers belong to a socioeconomic community that makes its living by sorting through waste and selling recyclables to local scrap dealers. Unfortunately, they are poorly compensated for the important work they do and often lack access to opportunities for upward mobility.

The broad idea is to add value to the plastic by converting it into a fair trade 3D filament product. We have faced a few setbacks in terms of the output filament quality. We are currently working with the National Chemical Labs [in India] on improving quality, and have repurposed the production facility to produce injection molded items from the waste plastic (www.socialseva.org/wastu).

OpenShiksha is an adaptive learning platform aimed at underserved schools in India. Our platform leverages educational games, interactive widgets and traditional input options like numerical answers to make mathematics and science engaging for the student, while providing instructors with performance information with which to make good teaching decisions. After working with a few pilot schools, we decided to pivot to an open platform. We’ve open-sourced the code base and are working with a few different partners to see how our platform can be leveraged by organizations in India with existing connections to these schools.

Our most recent initiative, UrbanAir, is focused on providing citizens, researchers and policymakers with high quality air pollution data. Air pollution is a major issue in Indian cities, with exposure levels often orders of magnitude higher than recommended. There are well-established health impacts of chronic exposure to air pollution, and research has even linked air pollutants to reductions in agricultural output and regional climate change. The platform [UrbanAir] is in its nascent stages and is something we’ve been working on part-time. The broad goal is to use distributed sensor data and atmospheric models to better understand the sources, transport mechanisms and impacts of air pollution, so as to inform environmental and urban policy decisions.


Is there a common theme behind all your projects?

Generally speaking, our work is project-based and focuses on technology solutions within the social and environmental spaces. These projects all started independently and have been structured under Social Seva in an attempt to organize them.


Where do you feel the bulk of responsibility lies for supporting and maintaining programs for local communities?

I think it’s very contextual. Social enterprises can be powerful tools of change if a market-driven solution to a social problem is correctly identified and executed. On the other hand, there are a number of organizations working in the social justice space that are not a good fit for that kind of approach and do extraordinarily important work functioning as nonprofits. The government also has an important role to play by plugging the gaps left by the private sector and fostering an environment that encourages innovation, generates upward mobility and enables social equity.  


You recently transitioned into a part-time role in order to attend graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Why did you make this change? What are you studying and what is the current state of Social Seva?

I am interested in contributing to environmental and climate policy in the long run, and wanted to understand and study the science behind pollution and climate mechanisms. I am currently a graduate student with the Atmospheric Chemistry and Composition Modeling Group at MIT, and my research broadly focuses on modeling the impacts of air pollution and human emissions on global and regional climate systems. Now, my parents, who are co-founders of Social Seva, run the organization in Pune. 


What are some of your biggest takeaways from your work at Social Seva?

The most important takeaway from the experience has been a better understanding of how things work at the grassroots. Working with our partner communities was humbling and instructive. They played a crucial role in helping us understand the local ecosystem and enabled us to design an inclusive and contextually appropriate solution. I know we would have achieved much less without our community partner SWaCH and we are thankful for their support.


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.