Dr.Sultan Ahmed Ismail – In Rhythm with the Soul of the Earth

Getting to know Dr.Ismail

It was Aravind Bharathi who suggested the name of Dr.Ismail to feature in this blog. He said he can think of many eminent people but Dr.Sultan Ahmed Ismail is the one I should really write about. There was respect and admiration in Aravind’s voice as he spoke about his professor of New College years.

I texted Dr.Ismail a message on his mobile, briefly introducing myself and requesting some time to meet him. Within a few hours I got a welcoming response. Then he sent me links to his blogs and websites.

As I pored through the links he had sent me, I discovered the various facets of his personality. He is a reputed figure in the field of college education. He has made immense contribution to make science within the easy grasp of school children all over the country. Then there is his pioneering efforts in the use of vermicomposting. On top of all these, he is someone who works with farming communities in the country to give them hope and a sane way forward.

He was awarded the CASTME award for 1994-95 in the UK, the Arignar Anna Award by the Department of Environment of the Government of Tamil Nadu for 2005, and the Award of Excellence presented by the Governor of Jharkhand in Dec 2010. Classified as one among the “TOP 10” people of Tamil Nadu for 2013 by Anantha Vikathan, he has traveled widely in India and abroad, with rich expertise in environmental issues.

When it was time to actually meet him, he texted me in detail on WhatsApp, meticulous in giving me the direction to reach him.

On a Sunday morning in early May when I reached close to his home in Palavakkam, Dr.Ismail was waiting for me on the road to make sure I did not miss my way. As he walked with me to his small, simple and elegant office he showed me the green, luscious plants in his compound with pride and tenderness. He also showed me the vermicomposting and vermiwash units at the back of his home, adjacent to his office.

I thought to myself then, that he deftly manages to disguise in his simplicity his greatness and achievements in many fields.

A Man in Rhythm with the Soul of the Earth.

At the start of the conversation with Dr.Ismail he shared with me his frustration that people are no longer in rhythm with nature and with themselves. He spoke with nostalgia about his childhood days when there used to be reverence for the earth and people of different faiths lived in harmony.


In his sadness, he seemed to be at one with the words of John O’Donohue, “Regardless of how modern we seem, we still remain ancient, sisters and brothers of the one clay. The human body is at home on the earth. It is probably a splinter in the mind that is the sore root of so much of our exile.”

The more I talked to him the more it occurred to me, here is someone who is at one with the soul of the earth and is also equipped with the scientific temper to help his countrymen to align with the rhythm of nature. He is someone who is anxious about humanity’s drift towards isolation from itself and nature and is doing all he can to hold a mirror to show what they have brought themselves to. And, all his life, he has worked tirelessly to remove the splinter from the minds of people – through his many initiatives.

Vermiculture – Saving the dying soils plundered and pilloried for short term gains.

Vermicomposting which Dr.Ismail has pioneered in South India is an effort at saving the dying soils plundered and pilloried with chemical fertilizers and biocides for short term gains. Especially for city dwellers, he has demonstrated that vermiculture can help maintain and multiply earthworms which eat, defecate and thrive on wastes, making compost that can be used for growing healthy vegetable or flowering plants in almost every home.

The significance of Dr.Ismail’s work with vermiculture sinks in when we consider what Charles Darwin said about earthworms. “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.”

In his book, The Earthworm Book he quotes the saying, “We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors, but have borrowed it from our children.” Driven by the cause of creating an eco friendly world, he along with like-minded people have set up a Trust – ERF – Ecoscience Research Foundation to improve the quality of life on earth by being friends of the earth. The Trust strives to achieve its objective through research, creating awareness and by finding newer methods to conserve earth’s precious resources.

Dr.Ismail works closely with farming communities to take his message of using vermicomposting as a sustainable ecological practice. He also works with the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India. His expertise and knowledge is sought not just in India, but also in foreign lands.

The Great Impact of Simple Tasks, Great Concepts.

He knows that the fate of the world hangs in the hands of students. He therefore rarely misses a good opportunity to interact with them. I was fortunate to witness the workshop conducted by him at the three-day Summer Science Camp organized by Tamilnadu Science and Technology Centre from May 12 onwards.

my juniors at st joseph of cluny pondy 1 Dr.Sultan Ahmed Ismail   In Rhythm with the Soul of the EarthIn the interactive session he encouraged students to participate and share. I saw Dr.Ismail going down to the level of his students explaining science concepts in a language they could understand. He was a spark plug that ignited awareness and curiosity about the world they live in, rather than a fuel pipe that transferred knowledge. He was animated as he spoke how they were so intrinsically connected with the world of nature and in harming it we harm ourselves. He also demonstrated theories and concepts through very simple experiments, arresting the attention of students.

More than the knowledge that he imparted, I marveled at his way of cajoling the students to believe in themselves and not in any of the labels they have been branded with. He almost pleaded with them to seek knowledge rather than marks and encouraged them to venture into areas of specialization other than just medicine and engineering. He told them that opportunities are plenty for those who worked passionately in any specialization of their choosing.

It has been an almost lifelong obsession with Dr.Ismail to make life science learning livelier, simpler and inexpensive for children who are the inheritors of this earth. This fascination got him involved in extensive reading, thinking and several practical experimentations during his many workshops. It was during one such workshops that Dr.Pandey of the NCSTC, DST, New Delhi, suggested that he embark on the ambitious project of preparing a book explaining principles and concepts of life sciences through 100 easy to do experiments which would be captivating, exciting, stimulating, absorbing and interesting. That is how the book Simple Tasks, Great Concepts and a blog by the same name came into existence.


Dr.Ismail has published 65 papers in National and International Journals & Proceedings and Supervised 32 students for M.Phil, and he is much sought after by research oriented people pursuing their Ph.D, and 17 of them have been guided by him.

He was honoured with a D.Sc. in Zoology from the University of Madras in 2001 for his research in the field of Soil Ecology with particular reference to earthworms and waste management.

Some people and words that shaped his life.

I discerned the huge debt of gratitude he carries, for his mentors – Prof.Phanuel of Madras Christian College, Prof.U.A Murthy of Loyola College who challenged him to go for a doctorate in Science. There are several others, including many of his teachers to whom he feels indebted for the role they have played in holding his hands and shaping his life. The New College remains etched in his memory for the vista of opportunities it presented him.

Certain people and their words have created a path on which he has walked throughout his life. Like the words of his paternal aunt when he as a nine year old and his brother requested that they be taught how to make the crisp dosas they so much liked. He remembers her words vividly, “You kids have lost your father… if you keep waiting that someone is going to teach you the nuances of life you will be failures… just watch with your eyes and do with your hands…”

These words took root in him and he learned to observe with his eyes and mind. And to do work that mattered with his hands, with all his heart. This marked the beginning of making and walking on his path, most often, on the less travelled path. He told me, “I learnt everything in life since then by my own efforts… but indeed at times walked in some remarkable teachers who held my hand as facilitators… I wish and thank all these remarkable people in life…”

When I asked him about how a very ordinary student – as he was once branded during his early school days – has managed to travel this far in life, he said that he always listened to the gentle sounds and signs of life. As I write, I picture him like a wise sage with the innate or developed capacity for scenting the whiff of opportunities and the whispered invitations from life to embark on adventures to make a difference in this lifetime.

For all his achievements, Dr.Ismail remains down-to-earth and very rooted to his values. Though he has a deep sense of pride over his accomplishments, he does not let ego govern him. I surmised as much when he told me that he is more known by Ismail which is his father’s name than as Sultan which is his own name.

The world is sustained by organizations and legacies that were started by people like Dr.Ismail who cared more about making a difference than fitting in.

People who like to make a start with vermicomposting, can get in touch with helpful people at www.erfindia.org/enquiry.asp

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