The Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has drawn many celebrities and politicians. Still, when two young women – Temsutula Imsong and Darshika Shah – decided to clean Prabhu Ghat and Babua Pandey Ghat in Varanasi, no one could have predicted that they would set such a high standard that it would be quoted as an example for years.
Temsutula Imsong, also known as Varanasi’s Naga warrior or Benaras, is a city said to be as old as time itself. The city is also known for its 84 ghats and numerous serpentine galiyan (lanes). Indeed, it is frequently stated that the establishment would be incomplete without the duo.
Imsong has been leading a winning battle to clean up both for the past six years. In her fight, she uses a shovel and a hosepipe instead of the traditional Naga weapons of spear and Dao (sword). Her mission is to clean up the country and raise awareness about the importance of swachhata, or hygiene.
Imsong declared her war on filth in February 2013, coinciding with the martyrdom of revolutionary Chandra Shekhar Azad, with the help of volunteers from the non-profit organization Sakaar Sewa Samiti. The battlegrounds were a couple of ghats along the Ganga in the Varanasi and Ghazipur districts.
Imsong and her friend Darshika Shah gained the confidence to take on the arduous task of cleaning up Prabhu Ghat in October 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA), or “clean India mission.” However, there was no direct access road, and open defecation was common. The stench was so strong that Imsong’s team had difficulty standing there during the survey. Despite the long and beautiful stretch that would have been ideal for a game of badminton or cricket, only groups of mallah (boatmen) would anchor their boats there for a siesta or engage in social conversation.
The ghat cleaning project began in early March 2015. 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 over the next few days. The filth layer was up to ten inches thick in some places. The task required the team to obtain rubber gloves, surgical masks, and shovels. At the time, some amused mallah suggested that they throw the garbage back into the river for the fish to eat! However, with the assistance of the municipality, Sakaar volunteers ensured that it was properly disposed of.
Prabhu Ghat looked brand new after a week of hard work. Imsong’s motley crew began eating there, pleased with what they had accomplished in a short period of time with limited resources.
After cleaning up Prabhu Ghat, they were faced with an even greater challenge. And that was how to ensure that the ghat stayed clean. Following each shramdaan, team members would take turns speaking on a donated portable microphone to educate visitors on their mission and the importance of swachhata. They also began keeping a night vigil at the ghat, with team members rotating between standing guard and sleeping on the steps.
Imsong credits social media for her initiatives’ success, whether it’s raising awareness about them or mobilizing volunteers from across the country.
Imsong is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Modi and counts him as one of her greatest influences.