As one of the best-known faces from the Northeast nationally, the social worker from Nagaland is leading a successful charge in India’s fight against garbage
New Delhi: Despite their reputation for ferocity in the battlefield, a true Naga warrior is known for his qualities of courage, doggedness and purity of intent. One finds these three qualities amply manifest in Temsutula Imsong, who can rightfully be called the Naga warrior of Varanasi or Benaras, a city that is famed to be as old as time itself. The city is also famous for its innumerable serpentine galiyan (lanes) and 84 ghats. In fact, it is often said that the place would be incomplete without the duo.
For the past six years, Imsong has been leading a winning battle to clean up both. And in her fight, the traditional Naga weapons of spear and dao (sword) have been replaced by shovel and hosepipe. For her mission is all about cleaning up the country and spread awareness about the importance of swachhata or hygiene.
Imsong, along with the volunteers of the not-for-profit organisation, Sakaar Sewa Samiti, declared her war on filth in February 2013 to coincide with the martyrdom of revolutionary Chandra Shekhar Azad. The battlegrounds were a couple of ghats along the river Ganga in the districts of Varanasi and Ghazipur.
“We were already promoting activities like ‘Dust Free Kashi’ (another name for Varanasi) and anti-litter campaigns. Although small in scale, they were high on ambition,” Imsong told EastMojo in New Delhi recently.
She had shifted to Varanasi two years earlier to join the Sakaar team that was already engaged in grassroots volunteering. Her husband, a resident of Ghazipur, had registered the organisation around the time of his retirement from the Indian Navy.
The overall state of sanitation in the historic city that is visited by over one million pilgrims annually was pathetic at that time. Volunteers went about their job in tees emblazoned with Azad’s picture. They also distributed nail cutters and sachets of anti-lice shampoo purchased with their own contribution in the villages along the ghats.
“We taught people on how to use a nail cutter for they were using blades and knives. This was also important as the area had a high rate of infant mortality. Similarly, if a young mother doesn’t sleep well in the night owing to lice in her hair, she might end up taking out her ire on her baby the following morning,” explained Imsong.
Those simple gifts bought with small donations were much appreciated by the villagers. Other than that, it was an important learning for the entire team as it taught them to work in close partnership with the diverse local communities. It was an experience that would soon come in very handy.
As for Imsong, this shramdaan or voluntary contribution wasn’t anything new to her. As a young girl, she had actively participated in collective tasks such as cleaning up the community’s water sources at the behest of the council elders of her Ungma village in Nagaland’s Mokokchung district.
In October 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) or ‘clean India mission’ on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Imsong and her friend Darshika Shah had acquired the confidence to take up the gruelling task of cleaning up Prabhu Ghat. But the place lacked a direct approach road and open defecation was rampant. The stench was so oppressive that during the recce of the place, Imsong’s team had a tough time even standing there. Despite the long and beautiful stretch that was ideal for a game of badminton or cricket, only groups of mallah (boatmen) would anchor their boats there for a siesta or to exchange social conversations.
The cleaning of the ghat commenced in early March 2015. Over the next few days, Imsong and her team collected nearly 300 kilos of dried human excreta and other garbage in the intense summer heat of the great Indo-Gangetic Plains. In places, the layer of filth was as thick as ten inches. The team had to arrange for rubber gloves, surgical masks and shovels for the task. At that time, some among the bemused mallah suggested that they could dump the garbage back into the river for the fish to feed on! However, Sakaar volunteers ensured that it was properly disposed of with help from the municipality.
After a week of arduous labour, Prabhu Ghat looked spanking new. Delighted at what they had achieved within a short period of time with minimal resources, Imsong’s motley crew started having their meals there.
It would, however, take a few more days for them to get rid of the stink. The teammates would often end up chiding each other for not having bathed properly!
The April Fool’s shocker
In the early morning of April 1 of that year, Imsong was woken up from her sleep by a call from a friend. The person who was breathless with excitement asked her to check her Twitter timeline as a very important message awaited her. Thinking it to be an April Fool’s prank, she opened her Twitter account only to be awed by a congratulatory message from Prime Minister Modi himself.
“This effort by @temsutulaimsong & the entire team to clean the Ghats in Varanasi is phenomenal! I salute them.”
That one message sent everyone in a tizzy. “The happiness and excitement that the entire team felt were simply out of the world. But other than that, we also realised that there was now an added responsibility on our shoulders and we resolved ourselves to take bigger steps,” informed Imsong with a shy smile.
Later, when she met the PM in person, she recounted her first reaction on reading his April 1 tweet and they both heartily laughed over it.
The tweet went viral and made more people aware of the work being done by Imsong’s team. For the next few months, they were inundated with interview requests from local, national and international media. However, Sakaar members took this sudden fame in their stride. The endorsement by the prime minister also encouraged more people from all over the country to come forward to volunteer with them.
Having cleaned up Prabhu Ghat, they were confronted with an even bigger challenge. And that was how to ensure that the ghat stayed clean. After each shramdaan, the team members would take turns to speak on a donated portable microphone to enlighten visitors on their mission and importance of maintaining swachhata. They also started maintaining a night vigil at the ghat, where team members would take turns to stand guard while others slept on the steps.
“For a rickshaw puller earning a hundred rupees daily, paying Rs 5 for one-time use of a public toilet means a lot of money. Then there were those who did open defecation out of force of habit,” informed Imsong. Like there was this wealthy man who had two homes but still preferred to ease himself in the open!
Meanwhile, the mallah community’s attitude towards Imsong and her team also underwent a transformation. Touched by her drive, a mallah brought a charpoy (cot) from his home so that she could sleep comfortably on the ghat in the night.
Gradually, instances of open defecation declined and the team was also able to make alternate arrangements for toilets for the poor with help from other NGOs. Today, whenever Imsong is in Varanasi, it is not unusual to find complete strangers walking up to her to touch her feet in deference to the exemplary work done by her. As for the mallah community, it has become part of her extended family and she is regularly invited to their house parties and family events.
Leveraging social media for outreach
Be it expanding awareness about her various initiatives or mobilising volunteers from across the country for them, Imsong attributes their success largely to social media.
“People often talk about the ill-effects of social media. But we have successfully used it for something very constructive,” observed Imsong.
She uses social media to connect with like-minded people to expand the scope of shramdaan to other parts of the country. The team members stay in touch with each other through WhatsApp groups. Several teams are involved in what Imsong terms as ‘spot-fixing’. Once a dirty spot or place is identified, it is cleaned and then suitable graffiti painted to spread the message of swachhata. The umbrella organisation, Shramdaan India had its first national conference in 2016 in Varanasi. The meeting has since become an annual affair and was subsequently held in Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and Roing (Arunachal Pradesh).
For the past couple of years, Imsong has been regularly tweeting on the importance of waste segregation by households and composting organic waste for use as manure in kitchen gardens or potted plants. She insists that flat owners can easily undertake aerobic composting on their premises. Two schools in Varanasi have started solid waste management under her supervision.
Increased sense of belonging and experiments with saffron cultivation in NE
Imsong is an ardent supporter of Prime Minister Modi and considers him to be among the biggest inspirations in her life.
When asked for the reason she said that as someone from the Northeast she had never felt more Indian than she does now. Till her relocation to Varanasi, whenever she would step out of her home in Delhi, she would be a target of catcalls like “chinky”, “Chinese” and “chow mein”. “I’ve witnessed the scenario undergo a sea change and I’d like to give credit to this government, especially the Prime Minister. Every time he urges the Indian filmmakers to shoot in the Northeast than Switzerland or uses phrases like ‘from Kutch to Kohima’ or ‘Kutch to Kamrup’ in his speeches, a very strong message of national unity gets disseminated.”
She is equally delighted with the improvement in rail and air connectivity and has high hopes from the government’s Act East policy. “If the development initiatives are successful, I don’t think young people from the region would need to leave their homes for jobs that pay a few thousand rupees. They will be able to launch their own small businesses in their own states,” she observed.
Imsong continues to retain strong ties with her state. Being close to her father who retired as a schoolteacher, she is assisting him with preserving local folk songs for posterity. She has also been experimenting with saffron cultivation in Nagaland. Last year, she procured 60 saffron balls from the Kashmir Valley and distributed them in her village for planting. The results were mixed. If the attempt succeeds in the long-term, she is looking at creating an assured source of income for farmers in those parts of the region that have topography and climate similar to Kashmir’s.
Before her relocation to Varanasi, Imsong was working as an English teacher in Delhi. However, not many are aware of the fact that she is also a master’s in Human Rights from the Indian Institute of Human Rights in the national capital. In recognition of her services to the society, she was felicitated by her institute for her work in the area of improving sanitation.
She is of the view that children must be introduced to shramdaan from a young age. “The concept is intrinsic to Indian culture. If not inculcated early, we might end up with a generation that believes rice is produced in supermarkets,” she warned.