Rich Kids of New Delhi May Be the Answer to India’s Environmental Problems

One social activist is hoping his bet on today’s youth will create a greener future for the country.

Vimlendu Jha sits with his students in New Delhi, India. (Photo courtesy Vimlendu Jha)

Dec 23, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Priti Salian is a Bengaluru, India–based journalist who has written for The Guardian,, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others.

Social activist Vimlendu Jha remembers an important lesson he learned from his grandmother: A look into people’s trash bins can give you insight into their culture and economic status.

This is exactly the principle he uses to influence the minds of hundreds of students in India year after year to reduce their carbon footprint. Jha, 34, reaches out to the wealthiest youth in New Delhi with lessons on the cycle of waste, who creates it, and where it goes. With the various programs he runs under the umbrella of his NGO Swechha—including eco walks and trips to the Yamuna River, which flows through the city—he works to foster their sense of ownership for the environment.

“Children hear about environmental pollution in the news and yet remain passive recipients of everything that happens around them,” Jha said, explaining that Swechha aims to turn them into active participants in society. “Most of these elite schools house children of industrialists, ministers, and bureaucrats, who, by default, would be in a position of power when they grow up. So why not work with them now to create responsible leaders of tomorrow?”

Jha’s journey began in the 1990s, when he moved from Bhagalpur, a city in the state of Bihar, to New Delhi to go to college. At the time, the state of the Yamuna River disturbed him: The water was, and still is, black, with untreated sewage from 18 drains flowing into it. “How could a city which boasts so many powerful and pompous English-speaking citizens have a dying river no one cares about?” he said. “I just couldn’t connect the two.”

He took a year off after graduation to study, understand, and create awareness about the Yamuna, founding Swechha in 2000. His experience also opened his eyes to the fact that the Yamuna doesn’t just represent river pollution in its worst form—it echoes a much larger issue of citizens’ irresponsible interaction with their natural resources.

With that in mind, Swechha starts by exposing students to the settlements around Yamuna through travel-based programs where they can visit and work within the river’s surrounding villages, and walk along the river’s trail to see it from the Himalayas to the plains in New Delhi.

The experience often leaves them shocked.

“I saw people worshipping Yamuna and drinking its crystal-clear water in the Himalayas, which is such a contrast to the citizens of Delhi, who would rather keep away from the dark and foaming Yamuna,” said Ananya Jain, 17.

Many students also carry the preconceived notion that villagers are poor and can’t move to cities because they’re lazy and unskilled. However, when they work in the fields themselves, they realize what an important contribution the villagers make by growing food for the entire nation.

“Before the trip, I’d lived in a bubble, never giving a thought to how the rest of India lives,” said Noor Dhingra, 16.

The students move from shock to denial to acceptance and conversion, a process that can take several years, according to Jha. “But we’re happy to help them make a start,” he said.

Swechha also encourages the kids to reflect on their actions by being aware of how much water they use in a day, the nonbiodegradable waste they create, and how they could be adding to the plight of Yamuna. Jha’s aim is to gradually shift their focus to the necessity of respecting the needs of the environment.

When the kids interact with the rural communities, they understand that being disciplined about their environmental footprint is possible. “I was impressed with the balanced lives of the people settled around the Yamuna,” said Malika Oak, 16. “They have access to phones and television, and yet they’re happy living on the resources the river offers. If they can do it, why can’t I?” (She also pointed out that it wasn’t really difficult to live without burgers and coke on the trip.)

Most of the students touched by Swechha are now trying to do their part for the environment by using less water, carpooling, and recycling.

As Jha says, “To change attitudes toward the environment, begin with the kids.”