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This New Delhi nonprofit encourages youth to "be the change"

Swechha began in 2000 as a young people’s campaign to raise awareness about pollution in India's River Yamuna, and to encourage youth participation and active citizenship.

When Vimlendu Jha first visited New Delhi from his hometown in Bihar, India for continuing his studies, he was appalled at the plight of the river Yamuna. The river was black with sewage, garbage, and pollutants straight from factories, municipal disposal sites, and people's houses.

“I felt very disappointed when I saw the river in that state. It was one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but there was no action and no conversation around it anywhere. The government wasn’t talking about it and the non-governmental organizations were not discussing it. This made me very unhappy,” Vimlendu recalls.

The river Yamuna is a lifeline for millions of people. Moreover, New Delhi is the capital of India and all the bureaucrats and other policy makers live here. Yet, not much action was being taken on this issue.

Founder of Sweccha Vimlendu Vimlendu Jha's first environmental outreach when he arrived in New Delhi was to encourage awareness of the polluted River Yamuna. (Photo: Swechha)

After thinking it over for awhile, Vimlendu ran a one-year campaign, "We for Yamuna," to raise awareness.

“We were young and wanted to do something relevant. We had a lot of energy and hope, and anger too, at the sheer apathy of the masses towards the environmental problems India was facing.”

In the year 2000, he started an organization called Swechha. Swechha is a Sanskrit word that means "of one’s own free will." He believed change would come only if the youth and kids were made aware of the environmental degradation, which had grown to massive proportions in India.

He took children from elite private schools in New Delhi and gave them hands-on information and a practical demonstration of the contents of their dustbins. He showed them how the bins were being disposed of by poor rag pickers. He taught them about recycling, up-cycling, and the need to start working for the environment on a day-to-day basis.

Education, environment, and enterprise are the three themes that connect all programs run by Swechha. In the last two decades of its existence, Swechha has worked with youth, children, women, and governments to create awareness and change towards sustainable development.

native fruit forest in New Delhi Six native fruit forests have been planted across New Delhi. (Photo: Swechha)

Bridge the Gap, Gram Anubhav, Yamuna Yatra, Eco Walks, Monsoon Wooding, Green the Map, Me to We, and Green Creeps are some of the 37-plus programs Swechha has taken up since its inception. More than thirty thousand trees have been planted under the Monsoon Wooding program, while six native fruit forests and twelve butterfly and herb gardens have been created across the city.

Under the popular Yamuna Yatra program, school and college students, corporate employees, youth leaders, and teachers are taken on a 12-day tour which traces the journey of the Yamuna from its origin at Yamunotri to Agra in Uttar Pradesh.

It is an eye-opening, experiential journey which shows the youth how the river is originally sparkling clean, but gets very polluted by the time it reaches Agra. More than 1,500 youth have taken this journey so far, which changed their perception about the need to urgently conserve our water bodies and the environment at large.

“Swechha helped shape me as an individual on four different dimensions. I was introduced to community development programs, political and environmental advocacy, practical implementation, and giving back to society,” says Bhaswati Choudhury, who volunteered for Swechha on and off for three years.

“Swechha sent me to Dehradun in Uttarakhand on a community outreach program, where I worked with a group of women," Bhaswati says. "These women were self-employed; they used to work as tailors, beekeepers, and bakers. I was placed in a non-governmental organization called HESCO (Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization). I would go around the villages, talk to the women, and try to understand their perspectives."

group of students in India The Me to We Pillar 1 students during a brainstorming session on self-awareness and career choices. (Photo: Swechha)

"It was an enriching and eye-opening experience for me. I also worked as a coordinator on the Gram Anubhav program, where we took 120 students to Bodhgaon in Rajasthan. The students were given an intimate exposure to how the village works. It was a five-day program that taught students about rural life in India,” Bhaswati adds.

Swechha is constantly trying to find ways to create a better, sustainable environment through its various programs, and their office in Delhi is the perfect example of a sustainable workplace.

“We have been telling the world about upcycling and recycling, so we thought we ourselves should do the same,” Vimlendu says. The entire office is made out of upcycled trash: old car parts, milk cartons, bicycle wheels, and other discarded material — which is converted into useful items like room partitions, book shelves, chandeliers, and other useful objects.

Swechha has around twenty employees and has engaged more than seventy thousand volunteers to date.

group of students looks out at Yamnua river Students taking the Yamuna Yatra Program, a 12-day tour that traces the river from its origin. (Photo: Swechha)

Working for the betterment of the environment is a continuous journey for Swechha. Better governance and civic participation are two important aspects necessary for environmental sustainability and protection in India. New Delhi is the sixth most polluted city in the world, and 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India.

“Conservation of the environment is still not in focus in our country. The government and the citizens still don’t think that environmental degradation is a big problem," founder Vimlendu says.

"Infrastructure, poverty, and development are seen as being more relevant," Vimlendu says. "People do not realize that when we bring these three together, we are harming the environment."

"So, accepting that the environment is in danger is a big challenge, but a necessary first step. We need better, environmentally sustainable policies to be implemented on-ground. Also, holistic civic participation is another vital need,” Vimlendu concludes.

Arundhati Nath headshot of writer

Arundhati Nath is a freelance writer, children's author, and journalist currently based in Guwahati, India. She has written for national and international publications such as The Guardian, BBC Wildlife, The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera English, National Geographic Traveller India, Outlook Traveller, JetWings, Mother & Baby, Parent and Child, India Currents, The Swaddle, Indian Moms Connect, Parents World, Child magazine, Mint Lounge, and others.

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