Meattle followed this effort with a campaign to reduce the pollution caused by scooters in Delhi. He surveyed more than 300,000 scooter operators and discovered that nearly all were using the wrong kind of engine oil; instead of using a two-stroke oil designed for lightweight engines like those in scooters, they were not only buying a heavier oil but using too much of it. They erroneously believed “The more oil, the better,” says Meattle. “We got them to change their attitude.” One of his other businesses, a flexible-packaging company, makes recyclable pouches for packaging lubricating oils. But he filed one of two public-interest-litigation suits that led the Supreme Court of India to order oil companies to set up special pumps with a premix of oil and gas, which creates less pollution.
“I did this knowing it would hurt my own business,” he says. “And eventually it did.” With premix pumps in all the major cities in India, Meattle’s company lost sales of at least 20 million pouches per month. “The joke with the other corporate leaders was that I was willing to cut off my own foot,” he says. But because scooter operators switched to the premix, “we saved 229 tons of oil that year.”
Meattle says his ideas have earned him a “mad hatter” reputation in New Delhi over the years. “The politicians could never believe that I didn’t have a vested interest,” he says. “But they’re beginning to understand–slowly.”
Even at MIT, Meattle was a man ahead of his time: he was one of a group of students and professors whose startup company–Select Systems, which he calls “one of the first dot coms”–attempted to develop a computer dating service. Meattle says that his MIT experience gave him the confidence to do things like present New Delhi’s leaders with ideas about how one of the world’s most polluted places can become a “city of excellence.”
“I like to tell people that if I were dropped out of a plane naked anywhere, I would survive because of the things I learned at MIT,” he says. “Before, I would have felt comfortable anywhere in India, but after MIT, I felt comfortable anywhere in the world.”