'It will take many years to clean the Ganga. It will not happen in five years like the prime minister wants. If you want it to be sustainable, temporary measures won't work.'
Twinkle Tom, an environmental engineer by training (from Stanford no less!), now designs wedding gowns because India, sadly, does not want her expertise and skill.
So why did the 30 year old forsake environmental engineering to design wedding gowns?
"The Indian government consults Singapore and The Netherlands in matters relating to the environment as both the countries are pioneers in the field," says Twinkle who has a master's in environmental engineering from Stanford University and a bachelor's in civil engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Calicut, "but they don't want me though I have trained in The Netherlands and worked in Singapore."
Twinkle's master's at Stanford was part of a scholarship programme at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. It came with a bond to work for the Singapore government for a year.
Twinkle found her work fascinating, but, eight years later, had to resign when she married a naval officer. The Indian government does not allow spouses of Indian defence personnel to work for foreign governments.
Back home in India, she discovered that rule-bound Indian officials were not interested in her expertise as an environmental engineer. So, she decided to become an entrepreneur and set up her designer wedding gown boutique.
Her business is doing well, Twinkle tells Shobha Warrier/Rediff.com, but at heart, she says, she is still an environmental engineer who would like to use her know how for her country.
A passion for environmental engineering
As a final year student of civil engineering at NIT, Calicut, Twinkle became interested in preserving the environment and green architecture.
She completed her master's at Stanford and NTU on a scholarship funded by the Singapore government. This required her to work for the Singapore government for one year.
Her first assignment after joining the Public Utility Board in Singapore in 2007, which managed water for the country, was setting up the Marina reservoir (The Marina reservoir, located in Marina Bay, was formed by the damming of the mouth of the Kallang basin).
The reservoir, which contained mainly salt water, was to be converted into freshwater through natural desalination and releasing the excess water that collected after heavy rains into the sea. The work started in 2008. By 2010, it was made into a fresh water reservoir situated in the middle of the city.
"Our work mainly dealt with pollution management. We needed a lot of public support as we had to make them realise they were polluting their own water sources and environment. The government took measures to educate the people.
"Once the people realised what they were doing, they themselves took care not to pollute. Getting people involved was the best thing the Singapore government did."
Twinkle's work included inspecting the sewer lines and ensuring they didn't leak into the soil and pollute the water body. "It made me think of the situation back home in Kerala, where we have a lot of water bodies that are contaminated, though they are cleaner compared to the other states in India."
In Singapore, she walked along the canal to see if it was getting polluted at any point. "We took many corrective measures to see that flooding, which was a regular feature there, didn't occur. I realised that the work I was doing had a lot of relevance in India."
As Singapore had limited water bodies, Twinkle says it was dependent on Malaysia for water at one point. Now, with storm water collection and artificial water bodies, Singapore is self-sufficient.
"They treat sewage water and make it safe to drink; it is better than the drinking water we get here. They realise there is value in everything, but we don't. We can learn a lot from Singapore on how to preserve the environment."
Disappointment in India
Twinkle always wanted to return and work in India. Before that, she wanted to get as much experience and exposure as possible in Singapore. She was sent for frequent training programmes to The Netherlands, a pioneer nation in environmental engineering.
She had hoped to use what she had learnt for the benefit of her country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked NRIs to return home and serve the country. She believed she would be able to contribute to his pet Clean Ganga project.
She was in for a huge disappointment. When she returned home, no one was interested in her expertise.
"The Indian government consults Singapore and The Netherlands in matters relating to environment as both the countries are pioneers in the field, but they don't want me though I have trained in The Netherlands and worked in Singapore."
Twinkle had met bureaucrats from India who had come to Singapore to train in urban development and learn how the environment could be preserved. "I wondered then why the government never sent any technical person. They only sent bureaucrats who have no technical knowledge."
Her biggest shock was a Kerala government official's reaction to her application for a post in the state's environmental department.
"I was told bluntly that Kerala University did not recognise a degree from Stanford. They wanted me to ask Stanford to recognise Kerala University's environmental engineering degree if I wanted them to consider my application!"
"This is the kind of response I get from various government departments. They are not bothered how you are going to contribute to your country."
After many such responses, frustrated, Twinkle shot off a letter to Modi, narrating her experiences. There was no response.
"The prime minister may have noble intentions," she says, "but government officials and bureaucrats don't care for his vision. I feel dejected that there is no value for my experience in my country while I can work in Singapore anytime."
"I don't have money to contribute to my country, but I have technical expertise, which the country needs and which is valued in first world countries. Tamil Nadu government officials came to Singapore to learn how to clean the Coovum. Now, for Amaravathi, (Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu) Naidu is taking the help of experts from Singapore. I worked with the same team there!"
Twinkle also feels there is no coordination between various ministries in India.
Taking the Clean Ganga project, she says. "You cannot just clean it once and leave it. Besides, you have to look at the river's catchment area, which expands to five states. If the upstream is dirty, the river also will turn dirty and polluted. So, before you clean up the river, you have to clean up the upstream."
While Singapore was cleaning the Marina reservoir, she recalls walking down the catchment area to identify contamination sources and take corrective measures.
"There are many similarities between the Marina reservoir and the Ganga. Marina was stinking once upon a time as the river banks were full of slums. Now, after working on it for 20 years, Singapore gets drinking water from the Marina."
"Similarly, it will take many years to clean the Ganga. It will not happen in five years like the prime minister wants. If you want it to be sustainable, temporary measures won't work."
She also feels what happened in Chennai during the floods can happen to any city in India unless the country corrects its environmental wrongs.
Turning wedding gown designer
The idea popped into her head in 2011, when she was in Kerala to choose a gown for her wedding. Unhappy with the limited choices available, she finally designed her own gown and got it stitched in Singapore.
In 2014, she realised that an interest in wedding gowns had increased among the younger generation. That's when she decided to open a shop in Kochi. "I didn't want to risk a loan, so I invested Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) from my savings. Most of the money was spent in setting up D'Aisle. Our tag line is Down the Aisle in Style."
Her initial collection had 20, 30 wedding gowns. "I was not confident about the tailors here, so I imported the gowns from Singapore. Now, I give them designs and also collect readymade gowns for my shop."
Today, she says, even Hindu and Muslim brides want wedding gowns for their engagement and reception.
Many brides, who have heard that she designed her own gown, ask Twinkle for ideas even though she is not a trained designer and has a team. "Designers here don't generally understand the Western sense of styling, so I give my inputs. Most brides come with their own ideas and want customised gowns."
Her store, she says, has registered 100 per cent growth. She now plans to branch out to Thiruvananthapuram, followed by Coimbatore, Bengaluru and Chennai.
"More brides are coming to us for wedding gowns. Though wedding gowns are mostly in white, they are opting for pastel colours as well. But for the reception or engagement, they want gowns in different colours."
Advice for brides
- Don't go after what you see on others. Your gown should suit your body and personality. Of course, if you have inspirational pictures, it helps.
- Start planning at least two months before the wedding. Unlike other Indian dresses, this is a body fitting outfit. We need a couple of fittings before we perfect it.
- If you are not sure about what you exactly want, go for readymade options.
- Research before going to a store. It will give you an idea of what you want. Unlike a sari or a lehenga, this is something you will probably wear once in your life.
Her first love
"I enjoy my work as a wedding gown designer as I get to meet a lot of people. This gives me short term fulfilment."
But Twinkle hopes she will have an opportunity to return to her first love, environmental engineering. "When a happy bride tells you her gown was appreciated, you feel happy. Still, I feel one doesn't use one's intellectual capacity in this. It is more fulfilling to work for the environment as I am an engineer at heart."
Photograph: Kind Courtesy Twinkle Tom