Temsutula Imsong picked up a broom and bucket and cleaned up a riverbank

The ghats, or steps, along the Ganges River seemed to be beyond help. But her volunteer effort has now been lauded by India's prime minister.

Courtesy of Temsutula Imsong
Temsutula Imsong scrubs the ghats (steps) in Varanasi, a city on the Ganges River. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has applauded her efforts.

For years, India has been engaged in expensive “Saving the Ganga” projects. Yet industries continue to pour sewage into the famous river, considered holy by Hindus, while worshipers litter and befoul its banks.

Most of the cleanup efforts have failed miserably. Now a young Indian woman, with a tribe of even younger volunteers, has founded a cleanup movement that, while still small, promises big results.

Temsutula Imsong grew up as one of seven children in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, the daughter of a teacher and a homemaker. Her passion for cleanliness began early.

“At the age of 8, I used to clean the village roads as part of my local church program,” she says.

Later, she taught English in Delhi and helped set up a nonprofit charity. Last February, on a chance trip to the temple town of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges River (also known as the Ganga River), she found her mission. As Ms. Imsong and her colleague, Darshika Shah, drifted on a boat by one of the ghats, steps that lead down to the river, they were overcome by a powerful stench.

“Prabhu ghat was an open toilet; there’s no other way to put it. It was secluded from the others, so everybody was using it to defecate and urinate. There was nothing holy about it,” she says.

Both Imsong and Ms. Shah were powerfully motivated by Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Keep India Clean), a nationwide movement spearheaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which stresses citizen involvement. “We spoke to a boatman who had been cleaning the ghats for years,” Imsong says. “He said, ‘You are crazy.’ I have been cleaning this ghat for 20 years, and no one has ever bothered to help me.”

But the two women continued their “craziness,” pooling their meager funds to raise a modest budget of 10,000 rupees (about $152). Soon they were joined in their cleaning efforts by other young volunteers.

“It was disgusting,” says Imsong of the process involved, with a shudder. “All we had were buckets and brooms and bleach, not even a proper power hose. But in five days, we removed 300 kilos [660 pounds] of excrement.”  

It was challenging, Imsong says, to persuade people to relieve themselves elsewhere. “There is a public toilet nearby, but a lot of people did not want to spend even 5 rupees [about 8 cents] to use it. For those who defecated, we got a bucket from the Ganga and asked them to wash it.”

This shaming gradually began to work. More people joined the cleanup.  

“The boys of our party slept on the ghats overnight to make sure people didn’t litter it again. People started playing cricket and walking on the ghat,” Imsong says.

“Many of the onlookers sneered at us, saying, ‘This will only be dirty again tomorrow,’ Shah says. “But we kept at it. And once it was clean, people stopped dirtying it. Nobody wants to make a clean place dirty again.”

Imsong and Shah were also shrewd enough to make use of social media. They took dramatic “before” and “after” pictures and uploaded them on Twitter.

Before they knew it, their tweets had gone viral and had drawn the attention of Mr. Modi’s social media team. On April 1, Modi tweeted, “This effort by @temsutulaimsong and the entire team to clean the Ghat in Varanasi is phenomenal! I salute them.”

“I thought it was an April Fools’ Day joke,” Imsong says with a laugh.

With that tweet, she became the informal face of Swachh Bharat. The hashtag #Mission Prabhughat generated 3 million tweets in a month. In July, Imsong and Shah were invited, along with other social media influencers, to meet with Modi. “I couldn’t believe it,” Imsong says, still excited. “I mean, he’s the prime minister and who am I?”

More people joined in. These days, there are between 20 and 30 volunteers every day at the ghats, and the number is growing.

In the rest of India, the Swachh Bharat movement has been accused of being a mere gimmick, even as initial enthusiasm has waned. Imsong agrees that without the government stepping in, any cleaning will be a limited, repetitive exercise. She’s talking with the local district magistrate about building more public toilets. And her group is now trying to sign up local boatmen for a government benefits program.  

“Most of the boatmen here are unemployed during the monsoons, when the ghats are flooded, and have no income. So it makes sense to have them help in the cleaning,” Imsong says. “But most don’t even have bank accounts, or take advantage of the government schemes, because they don’t know how.”

Local participation is also key, she says. To clean up the approach to another ghat, volunteers engaged the support of people living in the area.

“There’s no point in us coming from outside and cleaning it up, then it becoming dirty again the next day,” she says.

Imsong, Shah, and other volunteers also spend an hour every day teaching children in local schools.

“She is quite clearly from outside the city,” says the 22-year-old Shah, who is from Varanasi herself. “So when the locals see outsiders clean their own town, they are shamed into helping.”

 
In conversation, Imsong comes across as energetic and chirpy. Her Twitter feed is full of photographs of the now gleaming ghats and exhortations to join the Swachh Bharat movement.  

“Amazingly strong positive vibes ... India is assertive as a nation,” read one recent tweet. “Let’s do whatever we [can] to say that this is my part in it.”

Her clever use of social media has drawn many followers. Shishir Bajpai, a Mumbai-based fund manager who follows Imsong, was skeptical at first.

“At first, I thought it was just a photo opportunity for publicity,” Mr. Bajpai says. But he traveled to Varanasi to find out for himself, and was hugely impressed.

“When you actually see Imsong removing filth ..., regardless of how many volunteers turn up or not, you understand how determined she is,” he says. “Giving up is not in her vocabulary.”

Bajpai now advises the Swachh Bharat team on its expansion.

Among cynical young Indians, skeptical of corrupt politicians and nonprofits with high operating costs, this hands-on, can-do energy is clearly appealing. For her part Imsong remains undisturbed by the pessimism that surrounds the Ganges cleanup projects, or the fact that Varanasi was recently named one of the dirtiest cities in India.

She focuses on her own small, but growing, project. “Right now we have cleaned up only three ghats,” she says. “There are 84 ghats in all. One ghat at a time.”

Imsong also hopes to capitalize on the growing number of eager volunteers that are flocking to her. A new project, Mission Parijat, is organizing cleanups in other cities. While still fledgling, it is drawing interest on social media.

“I can’t do this alone,” Imsong says.

It appears that she won’t have to.

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