Shantha Sheela Nair, who served as a civil servant for 37 years, is a delightful person to be with; she always has something interesting to say and is usually full of ideas. She’s just retired but continues to speak at public forums, driving some of her ideas into people’s minds.
One of Sheela’s pet subjects is water and sanitation and during her tenure as Corporation Commissioner, Chennai, and chairperson of Metrowater, she did her best to get the rainwater harvesting programme going, with help from committed individuals such as Sekhar Ragahan who runs the Rain Centre.
It was during a year of drought and elections to the State Assembly that the RWH programme was driven through – and despite opposition and the debate appearing in the media, no judge, according to Shella, wanted to be seen as coming in the way of affecting water supply. RWH paid rich dividends for Chennai citizens, although in several places its implementation was not proper.
Speaking recently to an audience comprising UNCEF officers and local journalists, Sheela stressed the need to use less water in toilets. If it could be done in aeroplanes and spacecraft why could vacuum toilets not be possible on the ground, she wondered. The beginning, she said, had to be made with children and toilet-training before considering the larger aspect of decentralising water management.
As far as desalination was concerned, Sheela said there were no answers yet to where the effluents would go and what would happen to the brine. “A lot of our problems emanate from the fact that we have gone too deep into the ground (in search of water),” she added. She referred to the Roman aqueducts and the storing of water underground using the power of gravity.
Narrating her experiences of heading the disaster relief team in Tamil Nadu post-tsunami, Sheela said that tackling issues such as women’s menstrual hygiene and lack of sanitary pads was Herculean. To add to the chaos, there were paedophiles taking advantage of the presence of orphans; yet the administration did all it could to prevent any wrongdoing.
Sheela was for corporate bodies to show more sensitivity while handling issues pertaining to the locals and the environment. She also wanted young journalists to question technology and use indigenous technology as far as possible.