New Delhi: A boat ride down the Ganga as it flows past the famed ghats of Varanasi is on the to-do list of anyone visiting the city. It was no different for Temsutula Imsong, who along with Darshika Shah had moved to the city in 2013 to start a non-profit —Sakaar Sewa Samiti.

They embarked on such a ride one day in February 2015.

When Shah and Imsong’s boat approached Prabhu Ghat, one of 84 in the city, they were assailed by a stench. “We had to hold our breath. The entire ghat was shrouded in darkness, and while we had heard that Prabhu Ghat was dirty, the stench suggested that everything we had heard about it was probably an understatement," recalls Imsong.

The two women asked the boatman to drop them off at the ghat. What they saw still makes Imsong shudder. “There was garbage and excrement everywhere. There was no place to even stand," she says. The sorry state of the ghat was all the more shocking given the fact that the city is the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pet project is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission).

Imsong remembers “trembling" with anger that night, wondering how it is that residents of the city could treat the ghat, one of the city’s legacies, with such disrespect.

The two returned to the ghat a month later, this time with volunteers and cleaning equipment, having mobilized social media for the former and their own resources for the latter.

“We called it Mission Prabhu Ghat and it took us three days to clean up the ghat. We did a lot of crowdsourcing too, asking locals, be it students or residents, to join us—and they did," says Imsong.

The first day of the mission involved dousing the entire area with bleach. The actual, physical removal of excrement started from the second day. “We must have collected more than 300kg of waste during those three days. At the end of every day, our team would lug garbage bags from the ghat for disposal," says Imsong.

Surely,they could have thrown it in the river? “Yes, that suggestion did come, but it just seemed wrong. Is that why we were cleaning? To pollute the river?"

Throughout the three days, Imsong kept tweeting updates, and on the last day, posted a photograph of a pristine ghat bathed in twilight.

Those three days left Imsong and her volunteers unable to eat for days after—no matter how many times they rinsed, washed and bathed, they couldn’t get the smell of waste off their hands. “But still, it was a small price to pay," says Imsong.

Indeed, a month later, Modi commended her on Twitter, tagging her handle.

The clean-up of Prabhu Ghat was no isolated incident for her. Before she moved to Varanasi as co-founder of Sakaar Sewa Samiti, which promotes rural development, Imsong had already spent two years travelling to villages around Varanasi—promoting cleanliness, advocating the importance of handwashing, etc.

“It’s the little things that make a difference. For instance, we insisted women clean lice from their hair—not just because of hygiene but also because it helps them sleep better."

Mission Prabhu Ghat was a turning point of sorts for Sakaar Sewa Samiti. Today, under Mission Parijat, it has adopted the Babua Pandey Ghat in Varanasi, apart from undertaking clean-up of two reservoirs—Sonebhadra Kund and Gauri Kund.

The clean-up, referred to as shramdaan, uses volunteers, most of whom are college students. “A lot of them come to us because they want to clean up the city. They are proud of their heritage and don’t like seeing it being dirtied. When we started we had seven volunteers, today we have around 28,"Imsong says.

Cleaning of the ghats along the Ganga has been identified by the National Mission for Clean Ganga, the nodal body for cleaning the river, as a key task. It has been trying to rope in corporates, non-resident Indians and social organizations, among others, to help keep the ghats clean.

“The fact is that even if the ghats are being cleaned, there is no facility whatsoever to dump garbage collected. Forget collecting the garbage, there are no dustbins on the ghats," explains Vallabh Pandey, an environmental activist from Varanasi.

According to him, the buck in Varansi’s cleanliness game stops with the nagar nigam (municipal corporation) which display little or no interest in the matter.

“If a VIP is visiting, they will clean up that area, gather the garbage from there, and simply dump it across the river. Open defecation is a big problem. When the prime minister came visiting, bio toilets were set up on the ghats. On the third day, they were promptly locked. And no one knows where the keys are," says Pandey.

For Pandey, initiatives, such as Mission Prabhu Ghat, are a welcome step because they involve not just the local population but the youth. “They are very determined, very focused and, best of all, they do it without any financial help whatsoever."

Imsong admits to being inundated with financial offers from across the country but is uncomfortable about accepting money. “I tell people instead to help out with supplies for cleaning—masks, brooms, good quality leather boots, etc."

Imsong’s organization meets every evening at one of the city’s ghats where they organize debates and discussions on sanitation and cleanliness. “When we started cleaning the Prabhu Ghat, a lot of people would tell us it’s a waste of time, that it will go back to being the way it was. Even today there are people who don’t contribute, but the numbers who join in are far more. That is heartening," she says.

For Imsong, sanitation and civic sense are values that were inculcated in her while growing up in Nagaland’s Mokokchung district. Every month, a cleanliness drive would be conducted in her village with every family required to send a volunteer. For the ones that did not, there was a fine. “The fine was nominal but the sense of shame of not participating in a community effort was far greater. Cleanliness as a value has stayed with me since then."

Imsong has met the prime minister twice since her mission started. She insists she is apolitical but is all praise for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “I think it is a fantastic scheme and I want to participate in it wholeheartedly, as it aims to bring about a change."

And till that happens, she can be found on the ghats of Varanasi every evening—debating, discussing and promoting cleanliness.

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