According to entrepreneur-activist Vimlendu Jha, what started with anger at the plight of the Yamuna has evolved into Swecha — a full fledged programme for changing attitudes towards the environment.
It has been a year of mixed fortunes for Vimlendu Jha. Swechha, the organisation he founded and is the executive director of, moved into a compact new office in Malviya Nagar, fashioned entirely out of trash. A chandelier made of diet coke cans, a book shelf assembled out of vegetable cartons and a bike exhaust lamp are only some of the things that make a visitor marvel at the possibilities of waste. However, around the time that Swechha moved into this space, possibly India’s first upcycled office, Vimlendu also received a legal notice from Gap, an American clothing giant, asserting its trademark rights and urging him to stop using the word ‘Gap’ in his project Green The Gap, which upcycles waste into useful products. Intimidated initially by the notice, he has now resolved to fight it. “I don’t have anything to lose,” he says firmly, as his puppy (named Gap, incidentally) looks on curiously.
It has been a long and not-always-fruitful journey for Vimlendu, who arrived over 15 years ago around this time of the year, to apply and eventually study in Delhi University. “There was a lot that was happening in the late 90s in terms of social movements – the anti-dam movement, justice for Bhopal, an anti-nuclear campaign. It wasn’t something to do with ideology, I think it had more to do with the unrest inside me that got me associated with everything that was happening around,” he says.
After college got over, Vimlendu took a year off to reassess his priorities. “These were big but distant issues. I wasn’t born on the banks of Narmada, I wasn’t affected by the tragedy in Bhopal. My association with them was based on what I read, what I heard but not what I experienced.” The cause he subsequently decided to make his own was the Yamuna.
In July 2000 “We for Yamuna” was born. “Within a week we had over 500 people who joined. That entire thing became like a flagless campaign, with a bunch of young people trying to shout, scream about the river. Our focus that time was just to create noise. That is what we were best at,” he says.
One of the popular programmes that Swechha runs, in collaboration with Delhi schools, is the Yamuna Yatra, where the river is tracked from its source. “It’s about how the river is so clean when it is with uneducated people and how it dies as soon as it comes to people who speak English and wear FabIndia and have watched An Inconvenient Truth. This 22 kilometre stretch of the river in Delhi contributes to 80 per cent of the pollution and this is where all the environmentalists of the country are stationed, where the top ministers live.”
The problem, according to Vimlendu, is the lack of political will. This, despite crores of rupees that have been spent. “Imagine, the government could dig the entire city and construct the Metro and they did it in so-called world style. If they wanted, they could have done the same with the river. Constructing the Metro is tougher than cleaning a river, but they still did it. There’s no desire and there’s no pressure to do the same with the river.”
His concern for Yamuna hasn’t diminished, but insights from their sustained campaign have flowed into other areas of work and energised them. As Vimlendu points out, “Yamuna is just one of the outcomes of the indifference that exists in individual behaviour or State governance.” In its bid to tackle the said indifference, Swechha has created a curriculum called Bridge the Gap – “a sixteen session module which looks at life skills, environment and citizenship” — which is used in several schools in the Capital. They also run the Gram Anubhav programme, which seeks to expose affluent urban students to the realities of villages, and examine the linkages between the two, or the lack thereof, and the Monsoon Woodings project, whereby saplings are planted and nurtured each year during the rains in Delhi.
Despite close to 13 years of work, Vimlendu is often derided. “The journey hasn’t been easy. I still remember being dismissed for being young. It was almost a weakness. Me or my thought was shooed away because I didn’t have grey hair. The NGO world is as terrible as the bureaucracy; there are these old guards who think they are the contractors of social good and they alone can change the world on their own terms. That’s been the history of the last 40 years of our so called NGO movement.”
But Swechha has been steadfast in its belief that the youth can be agents of change. It reaches out to students in the three major universities of Delhi, and tries to initiate a conversation about how they might be stakeholders in issues around them.
As predominantly youth-driven organisation, it has been alert to the situation of youth activism in the country. “Most youth organisations get co-opted or surrender, and young people move on. It’s not easy to run a youth organisation in this country. I went to DU, TISS, I speak English and I still face so many challenges. Imagine someone from a small town or a village youth committee who doesn’t have an e-mail account. How will he or she be running a youth organisation?” To aid some of them, and also to share their own experience, Swechha runs the Connecting Youth Organisations Nationwide (CYON) programme.
On a wall in their new office, Swechhas other achievements are outlined impressively. But Vimlendu is far from sanguine. The city that has taught him his activism, also frightens him with its indifference to trouble. “The unfortunate part of it is that it’s so visible, and yet it doesn’t solicit action. And that’s very scary. Every time you cross a landfill or the DND, you pull up your window. That’s the easy thing. But how long are you going to turn away?”
Vimlendu – A creative force
Creativity has always been germane to activism, and Vimlendu Jha is not an exception to the rule. Apart from having a hand in designing the products and the office space of Swechha, he has also been the driving force behind the four films that the NGO has made. He conceptualised their first Jijivisha, which looks at the journey of Yamuna, directed and shot the next two, Wasted and Disposable, documentaries that look at the common apathy towards Delhi’s waste situation and the plight of rag pickers respectively.
“I used to do this programme for CNN called ‘Be the Change’. They were tracking my life for one year and they gave me a camera. So I had to shoot, make a package of about eight minutes and send it to them. That used to become a three minute news piece. That process got me excited, and I started making films,” he says.
Swechha’s Yamunotsav has become a fixture on the cultural calendar of the city, where bands like Indian Ocean, Parikrama, Raghu Dixit Project have played free concerts over the years. Vimlendu has a band of his own, called Jigri, which often performs during protests in the city.