Swachh India

Independence Day 2019: Meet The Heroes Of Swachh India

Meet the heroes of Swachh India, who have taken it upon themselves to free India from filth and working towards cleaning up its dirty landscape and improving its health and hygiene quotient.

These warriors are on the forefront of fighting some of India’s biggest environmental and health challenges, from contributing towards eradicating the age-old practices of open defecation, manual scavenging and mobilising people for clean-up drives to fighting water and plastic pollution and propagating eco-friendly alternatives and recycling. They have become role models for what is said to be India’s biggest sanitation and cleanliness drive, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the scope of their work spans beyond the campaign itself.

Mostly self-motivated, the work profiled in this series mostly started as personal initiatives without any government or corporate backing. But the impact of their work has been such that it has earned them recognition within India and internationally. Their efforts are now being scaled up to be adopted at a national level and also laying the foundation of crucial policy changes and better implementation of existing norms.

This special series to mark India’s 73rd Independence Day is by no means an exhaustive list, as this country is teeming with unsung heroes who go about their mission selflessly and silently, away from the public glare. The idea of this series is to highlight the work being done by some of these people who are truly following the path shown by Father of this Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’

We hope their stories inspire each one of us to turn into swachh warriors and work to make India’s air, water and land clean and its people healthy. Afterall Swachh India = Swasth India.

Afroz Shah, The Beach Warrior

In 2015 frustrated of seeing the view of the sea front from his home increasingly being blocked out by the garbage piling up on the beach, lawyer Afroz Shah along with his 84-year-old neighbour, late Harbansh Mathur, started cleaning up the Versova beach regularly once a week. Today after four years of sustained efforts of Afroz and his team of volunteers, the beach has been restored and given a new lease of life after more than 20 million kilos of garbage has been cleared from this beach.

The Versova beach clean-up drew global attention as one of the biggest beach cleanups anywhere in the world because of not just the duration it continued for but also because of the sheer quantum of the waste cleared. It earned Afroz, the United Nation's top environmental accolade — Champions of the Earth award in 2016. It has also become a successful example of mobilising people to take ownership of their surroundings and volunteering to work towards restoring its natural habitat.

Apart from Versova, Afroz Shah has now started working on cleaning Mumbai’s longest river – Mithi and hopes to replicate the success of Versova beach clean-up in 19 other beaches of the city and then across the country.

Read More About Beach Warrior Afroz Shah, A Man Who Spearheaded World’s Largest Beach Clean-up At Versova

Arvind Dethe, The Toilet Man

Until 2014, 50-year-old Arvind Dethe's only identity was that of a production engineer from from Akola, Maharashtra, who helped set up 14 fertilizer factories in India. But Arvind’s life took a completely different turn with the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan that year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Arvind Dethe decided to embrace the mission of making India open defecation free by 2019 by coming up with low-cost bio-toilets that only provide easy access to those without toilets but his innovation also takes care of the other big challenge facing India, disposal of untreated sewage. Arvind's innovative bio-toilets take care of treating human waste without discharging it into a drainage system or septic tank.

As a pilot project, Arvind Dethe helped set up bio-toilets in his own village and only after its successful implementation, he started training other entrepreneurs to build these toilets. This model helped in spreading his innovation to different parts of the country. Soon it caught the government’s attention and Arvind's bio-toilet was selected as one of India’s Innovative Technologies, a recognition that generated more demand for Arvind's innovation from different parts of India.

Till now this ‘Toilet Man’ has helped set up more than one lakh bio-toilets across India.

Read More About Arvind Dethe’s Contribution Towards Swachh Bharat Abhiyan

Arunachalam Muruganantham, The PadMan

Arunachalam Muruganantham's story has been told and retold over the years through a book, a documentary and two Bollywood movies, Phullu (2017) and Padman (2018). His journey from being a doting husband to the earning title of ‘Padman’ is a fascinating one. A loving husband, who simply wanted to find a healthy alternative to the dirty, unhygienic piece of cloth that his wife would wash and reuse during her periods.

The existing sanitary pads in the market, though a solution to his problem, proved to be unaffordable. This forced Arunachalam to work towards a cost-effective solution, after all, he concluded that pads are made up of nothing but cotton. Driven by the desire to help his wife Arunachalam started off on a path that took him way beyond the simple gesture of love and care for his wife to a global platform for revolutionizing menstrual hygiene practices in rural India. His efforts also went a long way in fighting the taboo associated with menstruation in India.

Read More About Arunachalam Muruganantham And How He’s Revolutionising Menstrual Hygiene In India

Bezwada Wilson, Fighting For Rights of Manual Scavengers

Born to a family of manual scavengers in Karnataka, Bezwada Wilson has led a long fight against the inhumane practice of cleaning of dry latrines, sewers and septic tanks by hand in India. He has been talking about the evils of caste discrimination and has been spreading the ideas of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar since 1982. It was because of the efforts of Mr. Wilson and his supporters that The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was passed in the Parliament making the practice illegal and later he played a pivotal role in the enactment of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

In 1995 he formed a human rights organization called as Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) with an aim to eradicate manual scavenging. He was honoured with Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016 for his efforts towards ‘reclaiming the human dignity of Dalits’. Till now he has helped more than one lakh people to leave the practice and live a dignified life. He believes that with enough political will and government intervention, the legally prohibited yet fairly prevalent practice of manual scavenging can be eliminated from the country.

Read More About The Swachh Hero Bezwada Wilson’s Decades-Long Fight Against This Ill Practice Of Manual Scavenging And His Take On Government’s Efforts To Eradicate It

Dia Mirza, Actor Turned Environmentalist

Dia Mirza rose to fame in 2000 when she won the title of Miss Asia-Pacific. Today along with being an established model and actor, she is a very vocal activist of environmental issues be it clean air, clean seas, wildlife protection or climate change. Additionally, she’s also associated with several campaigns for the prevention of female foeticide, HIV, animal cruelty, and children’s rights. She is the UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador for India and is also one of the 17 global public figures appointed by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the advocates to drive action and solidify global political will for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In an exclusive chat with NDTV, she recalls how her passion and love for the environment developed at a very young age and also talks about the biggest threat facing the idea of ‘Swachh Bharat’.

Read More For An Exclusive Chat With Dia Mirza

Gulmeher Green, The Cause Behind The Craft

Delhi-based NGO, Gulmeher Green, into existence in 2013 with the sole motive of creating alternate livelihood opportunities for women waste-pickers of Ghazipur, Asia’s tallest landfill, located in Delhi.

Today lives of hundreds of women living in Ghazipur have been transformed from being waste-pickers to artisans creating eco-friendly and zero-waste products like posters, natural holi colours, calendars, gift boxes, diaries, file covers, rakhis, pens, coasters to name a few. All these products use waste items that are available in abundance at Ghazipur and its nearby areas. The products are successfully being sold by the organisation to corporates, individuals through their official site and other e-commerce websites.

Read More About Gulmeher Green: Transformation From Ghazipur Landfill Waste Pickers to Artisans of Eco-friendly Products

Rajendra Singh, Fighting Against Water Crisis

Popularly known as the ‘Waterman of India’, 60-year-old water warrior Dr. Rajendra Singh is on a mission to stop a Third World War from breaking out because of the shortage of water around the globe. Winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2001 and Stockholm Water Prize in 2015, Dr. Singh is a pioneer in community-based efforts in water harvesting and water management.

He became a member of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), a Rajasthan based non-governmental organisation working on promoting sustainable use of natural resources, in the early 1980s. With the help of TBS and lakhs of volunteers across the country, the Waterman has been able to revive 14 rivers and waterbodies in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka.

His vision is to help the country have enough water for each citizen so that there is no displacement of the population due to lack of water.

Read More About Dr. Rajendra Singh’s Contribution Towards Water Conservation In The Country

Rhea Mazumdar Singhal, Innovator Of Compostable Tableware

Plastic has become the bane of existence. It is hazardous for human and environmental health and lack of sustainable and affordable alternatives to single-use plastic makes replacing it next to impossible. In 2009, when 27-year-old Rhea left her cushy job in UK and moved to Delhi, she was taken aback by the volume of plastic and how no one was paying any heed to it.

Being well aware of the consequences of using plastic indiscriminately, Rhea decided to eliminate plastic by providing 100 per cent biodegradable and compostable alternatives to single-use plastic and that is what gave birth to her start-up Ecoware. The eco-friendly tableware and cutlery are made using plant biomass which is agriculture waste. The company has successfully grown from five customers in 2009 to over 500 in 2019. Today, Ecoware has 27 distributors in 22 states across India and the products are in demand right from Jammu and Kashmir to Kerala.

Read More About Rhea Mazumdar Singhal’s Contribution Towards Eliminating Plastic And Providing Eco-friendly Alternatives To Single-use Plastic

Sudarsan Pattnaik, Sand Artist

Sudarsan Pattnaik has represented India in 60 international sand sculpture championships and festivals across the globe and has won 27 prizes for the country. In 2014 he was honoured with a Padma Shree Award by then President, Ms. Pratibha Devi Patil.

He uses his gigantic sand sculptures for creating awareness on national and international arena about environmental issues like global warming, ocean and air pollution, among others. In 2017, he protested against untreated wastewater entering into Puri’s beaches. Today he is also the face for Puri’s one of a kind authority-led beach clean-up campaign called ‘Mo beach’.

Read More About Sudarshan Pattnaik: Sensitising People About Environmental Protection Through Sand Art

Swami Prem Parivartan, The Peepal Baba

At the carefree age of 11, the worldview of most people is confined to the perimeters of home, school and thereabouts and the biggest worries include how to squeeze in extra time to play with friends despite the quantum of homework or the next class test. It is quite rare to find someone at that young age worrying about issues like air pollution, vanishing green cover, afforestation to mitigate environmental crisis and so on. Swami Prem Parivartan was that exception. A fourth-grade student in 1976, he was disturbed by his teacher's words that spelled doom for the planet, ‘By 2030, extinction of homo sapiens will begin and India will be the first country to go down. And by 2050, rest assured, there will be nobody over here.’ Struck by the harsh reality he just learnt about, the little boy approached his teacher and also his maternal grandmother separately for possible ways to prevent the impending catastrophe. Young Swami Prem Parivartan got identical answers from both, ‘Pedo se kahani shuru hoti hai aur pedo pe khatam’ (The story begins with trees and ends with trees).

Later on January 26, 1977, Swami Prem's birthday, his grandmother gave him 25 paise to buy and plant saplings. 42 years ago Swami Prem planted four saplings for the first time and since then there has been no looking back. He has been religiously planting and taking care of trees across the country, all to protect the environment and soon came to be known as ‘Peepal Baba’, for planting 1.25 crore Peepal trees all over India.

Read More About Swami Prem Parivartan’s Journey Towards Clean And Green India

Meet The Other Swachh Warriors

Here some of the other Swachh Warriors who have been doing their bit for the country and are truly making a difference on the ground with their work.

Chinu Jeet Kwatra - A 29-year-old Mumbaikar who was inspired by Afroz Shah and started with cleaning the Dadar beach. He collected more than 2,200 tonnes of waste in 102 weeks from seven beaches of Mumbai. He is now cleaning other beaches and river fronts across the country

Poonam Bin Kasturi - 57-year-old Bengaluru-based industrial designer and social entrepreneur - Poonam set up Daily Dump back in 2006 with the motive to change urban people’s mindset about waste by teaching them the art of composting

Dr. S. P. Gon Chaudhuri - An International Expert in the field of Renewable Energy, he is addressing the three basic needs of rural India - electricity, clean drinking water, and sanitation through solar energy

SWaCH Pune - A cooperative of more than 3,500 waste pickers, SWaCH Pune aims to recycle as much waste as possible and is diverting about 1000 tonnes per day of waste from entering directly into landfills