It all started with a moment of self-realization for Sanjana Runwal, who at the tender age of 17 decided to help improve the condition of rag-pickers and city’s garbage cleaners. On top of her mind was improving their safety, given the kind of hazardous conditions they worked in. Speaking to the students from the Department of Journalism & Mass Communication in a live interaction as a part of ‘Education for Action’ on Wednesday 10 November, Sanjana narrated her inspiring journey and the motivation that has seen her start an NGO.
Ms. Sanjana started contributing to the society at a very young age. She was 12 when she had gone out with her elder brother Siddharth Runwal for jogging and noticed garbage workers and rag pickers picking garbage without any safety equipment.
Later, after returning home she asked her father as to why these people did not use any safety equipment. To which, her father asked her to write mail to the Indian government. Not one to give up, Sanjana wrote several mails to the GOI but got agitated when her queries met with no response.
Drawing from her interest in economics Sanjana started looking for data on the internet based on such issues but was astonished to see no information available.
Restless by now, Sanjana along with her elder brother visited a nearby BMC ward office and met the ward members there. Looking at their age the BMC personnel did not entertain them much.
However, noticing their persistent efforts to get answers, Mr. Chandrakant Tambe heard them out and that’s when their journey began. While Siddharth moved overseas for higher education, Sanjana continued with creating contacts to deal with this issue.
All through this, Sanjana wrote 3 research papers under the guidance of Mr. Tambe and benefitting from her keen interest in economics. Equipped with this irrefutable knowledge base, she approached the government officials regarding this issue. Her papers focused on housing, safety and lack of finance issues.
Her papers stated the aim to improve the living conditions of the garbage cleaners and rag pickers and making available safety equipment and housing for them as it is a problem that needs urgent attention. The objective behind the research was to provide hygiene and safety, as well as recommend affordable housing that shall address their problem of housing ownership. With the support from the Government, she was sure that there will be a solution in near future.
Eventually her efforts bore fruits. The Maharashtra government has awarded a Letter of Appreciation to Sanjana Runwal for her research paper on ‘Affordable Housing Solutions for Garbage Workers’.
By now, Sanjana had also volunteered with NGOs such as ASRA and BHAMLA and gained more in-depth perspectives about the working conditions of ragpickers. Additionally, she also received encouragement from her Reliance school. This eventually led to her starting her own NGO Clean-Up.
During this process Sanjana realized that these marginalized workers were not aware about finances available to them at low interest rates. So, to address this gap, along with her team, she designed and created a mobile application, now available in Marathi and Hindi, to help garbage workers find houses. She said, Mr. Tambe’s guidance was pivotal when it came to the “eureka moment” of creating an app. The mission statement behind the app is ” To improve the quality of life for the garbage cleaners and rag pickers of Mumbai, thereby making the city a better place to live for all. “
That set the stage for the next big action. With these initiatives they were successful in installing water purifications, housing and safety equipment for the garbage workers.
During the standstill due to COVID-19 she was also considerate about the feelings and mental health of garbage workers and rag pickers as they survived on daily wages.
As a result of which, she conducted mental health camps in tie up with local NGO’s to make their vulnerable life manageable.
Speaking of her challenges, Sanjana said, “Getting the government officers to cooperate with her initially was difficult because they thought she was just another kid from a well-to-do family.” “However,” she added, “It was my persistence and perseverance that helped me understand that theoretical solutions always don’t really work out. For my first mental health camp only 10 people showed up because of which I was disappointed. Language barrier was also an issue.”
Nonetheless, till date they have raised around 13 lakh rupees and helped over 12,000 workers which in itself is a big achievement.
When asked about her parents’ reaction when she initially began this work, she admitted, “My parents were scared. My brother was there with me quite a few times but then he went to America, so I used to go alone to the BMC office because I was passionate. My parents had given me pepper spray and stuff. But by then I’d made good contacts.”
Talking about her inspiration, she says, “My grandfather came from a small village Dhulia with 100 rupees to Mumbai. He made it really big and because of him I know I have to give it back to society. Listening to the stories inspired me, so I just knew I have to do my bit for the society in some way, a real way and that was it.”
What keeps her motivated today is the impact of what has happened. She sees a change in the society. Rag pickers use gloves and gumboots, a change has been brought into their lives.
Also, she inculcated in them leadership and communication skills too. The biggest motivation for her came when people voluntarily came to help her. “Giving money is important but giving time is what motivated me” she said.
At the end of the session, she was asked “how can an advertisement campaign help you?” to which she replied enthusiastically “It will help me immensely. It is one of the biggest forms of creating awareness. Clean-Up banners and Clean-Up t-shirts were our ways, but now advertisements on social media platforms are a sure-fire way to spread the word. It will help in generating more funds.”
This conversation has truly inspired the author to pen this elaborate account with as much enthusiasm to match. Bringing the efforts of working for marginalized community inadvertently prompts me to draw comparison with student activists of international acclaim.