Interview
At 70, Manickam Athappa Koundar, who built an engineering empire from scratch, still has dreams.
Manickam Athappa Koundar and his wife Malliga

Manickam Athappa Koundar, 70, is far from slowing down. An entrepreneur from the industrial hotbed of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, he learnt engineering from one of the pioneers of technology back then -- GD Naidu. From then to now, Manickam’s innovative prowess has only grown. MAK India Limited, Manickam’s brainchild, is now a large company based out of Coimbatore, and has business interests in engineering and technology, agriculture and environment sector, to name a few. From building complex engineering items to treating solid waste, the company is involved in several projects that make a difference.

Having lived through almost four decades, designing and inventing creative products and services for the betterment of humanity, Manickam still seeks the rush of finding solutions for today’s problems. His early years were spent in the hinterlands of current Namakkal district. Despite his life having changed dramatically over the years, his curiosity about the things that concern the world, and his thirst to find innovative solutions for those problems still interest him every day, he says.

In a freewheeling chat with TNM, he speaks of his life, the path he has travelled and what concerns him the most at present.

The boy who wanted to 'bring rain'

Manickam started his formal education in Pazhaiyapalayam in Namakkal district. The last of three children born to Athappa Koundar and Thangammal, Manickam did his primary education in the village school. He then studied till SSLC in a school in Thaneerpandhalpalayam and went on to complete a pre-university course in Trichy’s Bishop Heber college.

“I used to see groundnut farms going without produce for four out of six years. I wanted to help the crops grow every year and prevent crop failure. I used to tell my father back then that I will bring rain,” he tells TNM.

Manickam then joined Coimbatore’s PSG college in 1968 for the BE Electronics and Communication Engineering course. Famous educationist and former MP of Pollachi GR Damodaran was the principal of the college back then.

“He spotted me and took me to GD Naidu, the famous industrialist from Coimbatore, during my first year summer break. GD Naidu taught me some technology like converting a valve-type radio into a transistor,” he says. Skipping the option of relaxing at home during the summer holidays, Manickam took the chance to get trained in big industries in Bengaluru and Hyderabad in the following years.

Read: Tracing Coimbatore’s rich heritage through cinema and industry

How MAK was born

After his engineering degree, Manickam wanted to start his own company, and that was when MAK Controls and Systems was born.

“It was in 1976 and I had some money I'd saved during my college days since I studied on scholarship. I started the company from a small room in Coimbatore’s Ramanathapuram area,” he recollects.

MAK started making complex engineering items and selling them for specific clients, slowly climbing up the ladder of innovation.

“Modi has been saying ‘Make in India’ just recently. We have been doing it since the late seventies itself,” he quips. Owing to technological excellence and customer support, MAK became a reliable player in manufacturing and supplying ground support equipment for military aircrafts like Sukhoi, MiG and Mirage.

Solution for pollution

Manickam understood that pollution is a serious concern, and built a bio-digestive septic tank which would recycle the waste water and make it fit for reuse.

“It costs only one-third of what it costs to install a conventional septic tank, and the running cost is one-tenth of what it takes to maintain a septic tank. If you treat human waste right at home, wherever it is generated, then there is no question of sewage water,” he says, and adds that as many as 2000 such tanks have been installed in various houses, schools and colleges in Coimbatore, and are working well.

The water thus recycled can also be used to recharge the groundwater table in areas, and will be of use during drought season, he says.

“This system will be of great use for cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Coimbatore etc. This is going to be the order of our future to solve the water shortage problem, and we should be equipped for all kinds of eventualities," he notes.

For the future generations

Manickam has also devised a system for zero waste solid waste disposal, which takes biodegradable waste and converts it into manure for farmers.

“We take the nonbiodegradable waste and incinerate it, meeting all the emission norms. The ash that comes out can also be made into paver blocks and bricks, and the gas coming out of the incineration plant is maintained at a temperature of about 800 degree celsius and above. We extract carbon from it, which is used for agriculture and water filtering,” he explains.

One such setup has been running successfully for 14 months in Erode, and they recently installed another one in Manali, Chennai, he adds.

Now crossing 70, Manickam hopes to see the planet less polluted and more livable for the generations to come. “My wife Malliga has been a pillar of support since 1976. I have two children who are living their lives. I want Mother Earth to be as pleasant as possible for their kids and grandchildren too,” he signs off. 

(With inputs from Sudhakar Balasundaram)