How an Indian Farmer's Son Won the British PM's Recognition!
Compassion is what makes humanity. Sadly, it is also a much too rare trait in today’s individualistic world, but I was lucky to be taught differently!
I am a 27-year-old climate change activist, coming from a humble family from Jaysingpur, Kolhapur, who moved to a modern city with dreams of making my parents proud. Today, I have reached a point where I am able to represent my country at a global level. What did I do, you ask? I picked up trash.
My father was a farmer, and my mother teaches underserved children free of cost, despite financial struggles of our own. My upbringing always taught me to be affectionate and empathize with people, animals, and our surroundings, and not take anything for granted. You would always find me telling people to not litter in our neighbourhood because the cleaning lady would have to pick it up later, and the least we could do was be mindful.
The compassion for my surroundings grew as I grew older, and I knew no matter where I ended up in life, I would always stay connected to my roots. When I moved to Pune for my further studies, this passion of mine remained as something I did for myself. Little did I know, this very passion would get me the honour of being awarded with the Points of Light award, which is awarded by the UK Prime Minister to inspirational changemakers in the community who are actively working for a cause.
How it started
In the year 2013, I moved to Alandi, Pune to pursue my bachelors in Computer Engineering from MIT Academy of Engineering. Moving to Pune was a big decision for me since my parents had made a lot of sacrifices to get me a quality education and I was determined to make my parents proud. While pursuing my education, I was also exposed to various opportunities in the sector of community service.
I started my work in community service with different initiatives, my first work being teaching underserved kids in the government schools of Alandi. Working for the school exposed me to a lot of problems that the students needed help with and the most critical one was clean drinking water. I was shocked that even a city like Pune faced drinking water problems and knew I had to do something about it.
When I moved to Pune, the first thing that caught my attention were the rivers, or should I say, the dying rivers. Due to improper management and the water treatment plants being inactive, the rivers were filled with harmful pollutants and the riverbanks were not good either. I loved hanging out with my friends at the Indrayani River and seeing a place we loved so much be as polluted as it was, broke my heart. I had to do something. So, I took up an ambitious challenge to clean it up myself.
With some of my friends joining me, we spent a morning cleaning a ghat near the Indrayani river. Just spending an hour cleaning that ghat proved how much cleaning the place needed, and we decided to share it online with the before and after images. With appreciation from many, we received questions about what we were up to. That's when we started popularizing the tagline Indrayani Bachao, as we were spreading the word about why the rivers in the city need to be cleaned for our own good. Cleaning up rivers became a routine for us every day and we started popularizing it in our college as well. We started to be recognized as The Visionary Fighters — We Rise By Lifting Others.
For the next four years, we worked with a team of 300 young volunteers to carry out different projects and campaigns throughout Pune. We conducted awareness campaigns for the Nirmal Wari Abhiyan, which comes under the banner of Swattch Bharat during the annual Pandharpur Wari, where over 4 lakh warkaris travel to Pandharpur via Pune. Through our campaigns, we went on the streets to raise awareness about the mobile toilets that have been installed throughout the route and encourage them to make use of these facilities. Our initiative also included fort cleaning and cleaning chronically littered areas of the city.
The cause we were working for was huge, but it takes a lot to convince people to bend down to squat and pick up someone else’s trash and keep doing it over and over. Eventually, many volunteers discontinued their journey with us, and I knew I had to find a way to make people want to show up for clean-up drives regularly.
The Pune Ploggers
While browsing for ideas, I stumbled upon the term ‘plogging’, which was basically gamifying the entire process of trash picking. The idea was to pick up trash while jogging, so you not only clean your surroundings but also get some exercise. I figured not a lot of people in the country were doing it, so I decided to try it out myself and challenged myself to plog for 30 days straight to see how it went and the experience bore its fruits. I had found the perfect way to attract people to my initiative. Many people joined my initiative while I was plogging for these 30 days since they started recognizing me for what I did.
In 2019, Pune Ploggers was launched and this time around, I decided to make it a community plogging initiative by building on the fundamental principles of EDI, short for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, which welcomes each and every person to be a part of the initiative. The concept of plogging was appreciated by many in the community and people came in with much more excitement and motivation.
Today, we have over 10,000 ploggers as young as 4 years old and as old as 78 years old, in India alone. People from different socioeconomic backgrounds, even the homeless, are recognized as ploggers of the community because the city is our home and, no matter our lifestyles, it is our responsibility to take care of it. Together, we have managed to pick up about a thousand tons of plastic through our drives and send them for recycling, upcycling or to landfills where they are treated properly. We have been plogging every week in Pune and recently reached our 300 plogging drive mark with the support of our enthusiastic volunteers.
Adapting to the lockdown, we came up with a household waste segregation campaign where we visited households to collect plastic waste and started making eco bricks out of them. One of our most successful initiatives during the pandemic was the Chalk of Shame, which was inspired by floods of cigarette butts on the streets of Pune. We felt picking it up wasn't enough and we had to make people notice the harm they were causing. The best way to do that was to highlight every cigarette butt on the street with a circle drawn around it and a slogan for the reader. This turned out to be one of our most impactful ventures, which resulted in a considerable number of cigarette butts ending up in the bins instead of the streets.
After working for 4 years as a software developer and a plogger, I wanted to quit my job and pursue my Masters in Environmental Policy and Management, which would greatly support my cause and help me take it to the global level as I had always wanted. I had never, in my dreams, expected that this initiative of mine would get me a full scholarship at the University of Bristol. It meant a great deal to me to go to one of the biggest universities in the UK with a full scholarship in hand.
I have always believed in the idea of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, which means ‘the world is one family’ and I carried it with me when I moved to Bristol for my Masters. Contrary to popular belief that developed countries are the cleanest, Bristol still had a lot of plastic waste across the streets which needed cleaning up. So, I started my venture in Bristol as well, where I got along with students from across 12 different countries and we started plogging in Bristol. Today, 150 of us plog for an hour every day across the streets of Bristol, picking up plastic and our family of ploggers just keeps getting bigger and more diversified.
We have now replicated the EDI model in 28 cities in the country and have also inspired our neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh to start their own plogging groups.
When it comes to climate change, most people tend to blame the government for not taking action, or they just aren't aware of how they can help. We faced a lot of retention because most people don't want to change and it's easier to not care. The fight is against the system, which includes the authorities and people like us who make a choice every single day because our actions on a local level have a global impact. We need to unlearn and relearn a lot of things that have been implanted in our heads for ages.
Many might say that picking up trash isn't a solution to climate change, but the motive is much bigger than that. Most of us won't try to make a change unless we see how bad things are when we must pick up plastic bags covered in all kinds of food waste, biomedical waste and often even human waste. This experience shows you a hard-hitting reality and makes you rethink your choices.
Coming from a financially difficult background, reaching this position would be an ambitious move for someone like me, but that is the message I wish to send out. No matter what your current situation is, no dream is too small if you have the passion for it. The journey hasn’t been easy, but I believe that your intent and motive should be your own solution to the problems, because at the end of the day, every individual matters, every action counts in the race to fight climate change and this belief strengthens everyone’s ability to be a part of this.
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath