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Hope flows, and so does the river

BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA
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Entrepreneur-activist Vimlendu Jha’s journey with Swechha is an example of how youngsters can be involved to bring about change

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 Delhi, 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 in Delhi to study. “There was a lot that was happening in the late 1990s 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. “ My association with these causes 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. It was 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,” 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. “ 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 ministers live.”

The problem, according to Vimlendu, is the lack of political will. This, despite crores of rupees that have been spent. “ There’s no desire and there’s no pressure to do something for the river.”

In its bid to tackle the 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 country’s 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.

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. 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.”

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. To aid some of them, and also to share their own experience, Swechha runs the Connecting Youth Organisations Nationwide (CYON) programme.

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. Swechha’s Yamunotsav has featured bands like Indian Ocean, Parikrama and Raghu Dixit Project, who have played free concerts over the years. Vimlendu has a band of his own, called Jigri, which often performs during protests in the city.

BUDHADITYA BHATTACHARYA

Swechha has been steadfast in its belief that the youth can be agents of change. It tries to initiate a conversation about how they might be stakeholders in issues around them

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