- In 2015, Temsutula Imsong started Mission Prabhughat to clean-up the ghat
- Since then, she and her team have cleaned up 6 of Varanasi's ghats
- Social media momentum helped make this effort successful
A small group of six people began to try and manually clean up decades of filth covering one of Varanasi’s ghats on the morning of March 14, 2015. By the end the day, they found themselves carting away nearly 300 kilos waste that had been cleared.This was how Temsutula Imsong and her friends manually began the process of cleaning up Prabhu Ghat which was one of the city’s filthiest at the time. “I cannot even describe the horrific conditions. Human excrement, plastic, silt, sarees, shoes, mud—you just had to name something and you would find it there! And eight steps were completely submerged under this mound,” she reminisces. Just four days later, the stretch was clean, thanks to the volunteers who flocked to help, inspired by her example.
Ghats are the lifeline of Varanasi—centres of religious and cultural activities, the source of livelihood for boatmen, tourist spots for pilgrims and travellers. However, most of these are notoriously dirty.
“Like anyone in Varanasi, I wanted to take a boat ride down the Ganga and then we reached Prabhu Ghat. The stench was overwhelming. It was shocking,” Temsutula says,“The ghat was no better than an open toilet.”
She, along with her friend Darshika Shah, then decided that something had to be done.
The idea was not an instantaneous one but had been brewing since 2013, when the 34-year-old from Nagaland, dissatisfied with her teaching job in Delhi, had shifted to Varanasi to join Saakar, an NGO which had been founded by a friend, Shailesh Pandey.
“I would explore Varanasi and wonder how, in spite of it being one of India’s holiest cities, one would see so much garbage, people defecating in the open and a complete disregard for cleanliness,” she says.
And so they started, armed with buckets, brooms, gloves, masks, bleaching powder and garbage bags and a mere ₹10,000.
#MissionPrabhuGhat: Building Momentum on Social Media
What made the programme really successful was the amount of traction it found on social media. Realising the potential of Twitter, Temsutula had, from the very beginning, started posting pictures and status updates documenting the progress of the activity. An impressive 18.3 thousand people currently follow her Twitter account.
— Temsutula Imsong (@temsutulaimsong) September 9, 2015
Moreover, the cleanup activities caught the attention of the attention of the Prime Minister, who tweeted about it, bringing a significant amount of attention to Temsutula, as she and her team were readying themselves to clean up another ghat—Babua Pandey—a far larger and dirtier area.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 1, 2015
“It was incredibly encouraging to get such a response and have the Prime Minister talk about it. In fact, when a friend initially told me, I thought it was a silly April Fools’ joke,” she says with her characteristic humility, “The thing is that, for me, it was nothing heroic. We were just a bunch of people who wanted to do our bit. Anyone could have done it.”
The movement just grew from there, and at the height of the two-and-a-half-month-long clean-up drive of the Babua Pandey Ghat, nearly 30 to 40 new volunteers would join in each day to clean the 60 meter-long ghat.
— Temsutula Imsong (@temsutulaimsong) May 2, 2015
This, according to Temsutula, was incredibly important as it gave the participating youth and residents a sense of ownership.
“We are just outsiders who would clean and leave. But to truly see and make a difference, we would have to get the people interested and invested. Only then will the ghats stay clean,” she explains.
The Fight For Swachhta Continues
Since then, Saakar has worked to clean 6 ghats and two reservoirs over the course of 2015 and 2016—Sonebadhrakund and Gaurikund.
— Temsutula Imsong (@temsutulaimsong) October 24, 2015
“You know how you know what you’re doing is worthwhile? When the people around actually appreciate it and benefit from it. Cleaning up the ghats changed the quality of life for the residents. Boatmen were suddenly there, people were doing yoga, children would come in the evenings to play badminton and cricket and Gangetic dolphins could be spotted,” Temsutula says, “When we finished cleaning the Babua Pandey Ghat, some older residents told us that we had cleaned up 30 years of garbage.”
— Temsutula Imsong (@temsutulaimsong) June 21, 2015
The situation, according to her, is much better than it was two years ago. However, challenges continue to exist, the biggest being open defecation.
“It is unfortunate but I cannot say that the ghats we have cleaned are ODF. It is so habitual for some people to come and defecate on the ghats every morning. The process of unlearning and creating behavioural change will take some time. We are still trying to educate people,” she says.
The good news, Temsutula says, is that there is a positively marked difference in the seriousness of the municipal corporations to set up toilets, maintain them and keep the ghats cleaner.
So what’s next for Temsutula? “Very soon we will be starting a campaign to continue cleaning Gaurikund. This should start next month and will go on till the Monsoons start,” she tells NDTV.
For now, Temsutula is quite satisfied with the progress she, her organisation and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have made. “What can I say? I’m just really happy,” she says with a laugh.